McLaurin: Historic coal-ash spill shows need for standards

First Posted: 2/17/2014

Kevin Spradlin

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State Sen. Gene McLaurin stopped short of saying he was satisfied with the response by Duke Energy officials after the company “accepted responsibility” for its role in what is reported to be the third worst coal-ash spill in U.S. history.

On Monday, McLaurin and the rest of the Legislative Environmental Review Commission spent more than four hours in Raleigh listening to Duke Energy representatives, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials and environmental advocates discuss how 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water ended up in Dan River.

“I think Duke accepted responsibility,” McLaurin said Monday afternoon in a phone interview with The Daily Journal, “which is certainly a step in the right direction. I think they realized the seriousness of the issue. That’s certainly a positive.”

McLaurin said time will tell as weeks and months pass and Duke Energy is held accountable not only for cleanup of the current disaster but works to prevent another one.

He said everyone seems to realize that “something’s got to be done differently than what has been done in the past.”

According to The News & Observer, a security guard discovered that a pipe cutting under a 27-acre toxic waste pond had collapsed and caused coal-ash and contaminated water to go into the Dan River at a power plant near Eden. Dan River serves as a drinking water source for parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

McLaurin said locals should consider the potential impact if the Pee Dee River, a key source of drinking water for the region, were contaminated in similar fashion.

“Water is a precious resource that we all depend on,” McLaurin said. “We absolutely must protect our water supplies. This is a serious matter. Our lives and economic future depend on safe water supply for citizens, our agricultural community and businesses.”

McLaurin said that during the hearing, he urged state environmental officials to develop “guidelines and deadlines” to which utility companies such as Duke Energy could be held accountable on a time frame “so that we can make sure these ponds are closed and safely dealt with so that there’s no more threat to our water supply.”

“The public’s concerned, and rightly so, about protecting the water supply,” he said. “Our job as legislators is to make sure we hold the Department of Environment and Natural Resources responsible to help provide guidelines. If they need some help from the legislature, then obviously we need to take action.”

One example, McLaurin said, could be to require coal-ash ponds to be lined in order to protect against seepage into soil and water.

“Many states have already required the coal-ash ponds to be lined,” he said. “North Carolina hasn’t done that yet. No matter how much (the chemicals) are being diluted, we’ve got to take every step necessary to try and prevent this.”

Legislative Environmental Review Commission meets again in March.

See page 3A for related coverage.