Early this year, the picturesque Dan River in North Carolina was hit by a devastating toxic spill that spread 70 miles downstream, poisoning the water and everything in it. Why am I telling you about an environmental disaster which happened hundreds of miles away from us?
Because our own Apalachicola River is vulnerable to the same series of events, and we need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening here.
The hazardous coal ash that fouled the Dan River was stockpiled at a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant site. Like other power companies, Duke stores the hazardous ash that’s left over from burning coal in huge, unlined pits. When a pipe at the Duke plant failed, 140,000 tons of coal ash and contaminated wastewater went into the river.
We have toxic coal ash stockpiled along the Apalachicola, at Gulf Power Company’s Scholz Generating Plant near Sneads. And it is leaking into the river. In June 2013, samples of bright orange contamination leaking out of the pits contained arsenic at levels 300 times the amount considered safe for drinking water.
Besides poisonous arsenic, the coal ash also contains toxics like cadmium, and chromium – well-known carcinogens – as well as aluminum, barium, beryllium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, selenium, and the neurotoxin mercury.
This is a public hazard. On June 4, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a federal lawsuit against Gulf Power under the Clean Water Act. The public-interest law firm Earthjustice is representing us in the suit.
Before we filed the lawsuit, we informed Gulf Power of the illegal pollution we documented, and then gave the company four months to begin addressing the problems. We also asked for documentation to support Gulf’s claim that the leaking impoundment at the Scholz plant is not at risk of failing. The utility refused to do either, and we were forced to go to court to protect the Apalachicola and the people who use it.
Gulf Power has a federal Clean Water Act permit, which allows the corporation to discharge limited amounts of treated wastewater from a specific outfall directly into the Apalachicola River. But, as our lawsuit points out, untreated contaminants are leaking at other places at the site, and those discharges are not covered by the permit. These toxic chemical leaks – and the company’s failure to report them – violate Gulf Power’s federal permit requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Coal ash impoundments are the number one source of toxic water pollution in the United States, dumping more heavy metals and other harmful substances into our waterways than the next nine most polluting industries, combined. While the Clean Water Act does protect waterways from many forms of pollution, there are no federal safeguards specific to coal ash pollution.
Household garbage, in fact, is better regulated than toxic coal ash. Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water aquifers across the country.
We need to remedy this dangerous situation. In Washington, 11 public-interest groups and a Native American tribe are involved in a legal agreement to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize new federal regulations dealing with the handling and disposal of coal ash waste. Powerful energy corporations managed to avoid these regulations for decades, and have aggressively fought to weaken the new standards proposed by the EPA.
Meanwhile, here along the Apalachicola, Gulf Power needs to stop polluting our public waterway with its toxic waste. It isn’t fair for a corporation to risk our common resource as if it were a private dumping ground.
On June 6, the day before the National Trails Day, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior officially designated the Apalachicola River Blueway as a national recreation trail. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis called the Apalachicola “a rare gem” that “flows through one of the nation’s richest hotspots of biodiversity … a tapestry of wild landscapes and vanishing cultures.” We know how special the Apalachicola is, and we are so very grateful for its gifts. That’s why we took the big step of going to court to stop this dangerous pollution that affects us all.
After 61 years of electricity generation at the Scholz plant, Gulf Power has announced that it will stop burning coal at the Scholz facility next year.
But as the disaster on the Dan River taught us, coal ash lagoons are dangerous regardless of whether the power plant is still operating. Duke Energy closed the Dan River plant in 2011, but years-worth of coal ash remained in the lagoon that collapsed in February. Unless Gulf Power starts taking responsibility for its mess, its coal ash pits will continue polluting the Apalachicola for years to come.
It is essential that when Gulf Power permanently shutters its plant, that the corporation’s hazardous waste does not continue to threaten the health of local residents, or the users of the river, or the fisheries of Apalachicola Bay. It is essential that the cleanup does not become the taxpayers’ problem. And it is essential that the cleanup costs do not fall on the ratepayers: the local residents who have no choice but to buy electricity from Gulf Power, a subsidiary of the $38 billion Southern Company.
We are doing all that we can to prevent a disaster like Duke Energy’s hazardous waste spill on the Dan River from happening here. Let’s hope Gulf Power will too.
Dan Tonsmeire has served both as Riverkeeper and as the organization's executive director since May 2010.