Toxic coal ash puts river at risk

Dan Tonsmeire

Dan Tonsmeire

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 12:14 PM.

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.

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