After the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history, and in the midst of a federal criminal investigation, you’d think executives at Duke Energy would be getting ready for a little more scrutiny when it comes to their coal ash waste.
Apparently not. Speaking at Duke’s quarterly earnings call on Tuesday, Duke executive vice president Keith Trent stated “We do expect [coal ash] will be designated as nonhazardous. That’s the general assumption that we’re working with.”
Trent was referring to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s planned decision on how to regulate coal ash, the leftover waste from burning coal to fuel power plants. The EPA is considering two options for coal ash regulation: A rule that would regulate the substance as a hazardous waste, and a lenient one, favored by polluters like Duke, that would label it “non-hazardous.”
On its face, Trent’s prediction that the EPA would label coal ash “non-hazardous” would seem absurd, especially given the current context. Coal ash contains harmful amounts of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The recent coal ash spill at Duke’s Dan River Station in North Carolina extended 70 miles, threatening water supplies and halting recreational use of Dan River. Arsenic levels in the river have been measured at 14 times higher than the level safe for humans. And health officials have advised Virginia and North Carolina residents not to even touch the river’s water, let alone swim in it or fish from it. Does that sound “non-hazardous” to you?
But look deeper, and Duke’s arrogance comes from a long history of successfully avoiding regulation. Documents suggest that Duke and other utility lobbyists met with White House officials to push a non-hazardous designation before the EPA options were even released.
Thanks to Duke’s lobbying, the EPA has only recently restarted its coal ash decision, having sat on the proposal for fouryears.
EPA has announced that it will make its decision on coal ash by December of this year. It will be a decisive moment to see whether President Obama’s EPA stands with people or polluters. Will it prove Duke Energy’s brazen prediction correct, and label coal ash “non-hazardous” even after the Dan River disaster?
Or will the agency do its job and simply call coal ash what it is: hazardous to the point that it renders our rivers untouchable when an accident happens?
We can only hope that this time the agency sides with people’s health, not Duke’s lobbyists. Otherwise the next Dan River disaster won’t be far away.