Press Release | January 31, 2024

Igniting a coal ash revolution: 10 years after Duke Energy’s spill into the Dan River

Largest coal ash cleanup in America followed efforts by community groups

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Duke Energy’s spill of toxic-laden coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina ten years ago galvanized a fight already underway by community groups across the state against coal ash pollution. That fight ultimately led to the largest coal ash cleanup in America. Nationwide, the following year EPA instituted the first limits on coal ash pollution into rivers, lakes and streams from power plants. Today, in six Southeastern states where the Southern Environmental Law center has represented community and conservation groups in litigation and advocacy efforts against dangerous coal ash storage, utilities are required or committed to remove over a quarter billion tons of coal ash from unlined waterfront pits, one of the biggest cleanups of solid waste pollution in the region’s history.

“Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash into the Dan River brought home to North Carolinians the dangers of storing coal ash in unlined, leaking pits next to our drinking water sources,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represented community groups in court seeking coal ash cleanups in North Carolina. “Efforts by communities statewide put in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation to protect North Carolina’s clean water and families from coal ash pollution.”

Court orders and settlements through litigation by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of those groups put in place a comprehensive cleanup plan for all coal ash lagoons at all 14 Duke Energy sites in North Carolina under which 126 million tons of ash has been or will be excavated across the state. To date, the removal of coal ash has been completed at the Riverbend Plant on Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte, at Asheville on the French Broad River, at the Sutton Plant on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, at the Dan River Plant, and at one unlined pit on the Broad River at the Cliffside Plant in Mooresboro. According to testimony by Duke Energy in 2022, by pushing Duke to excavate coal ash rather than cap in place at just five of the North Carolina sites, SELC and community groups saved Duke Energy Progress and its customers over $1 billion. Funds from settlements were invested in impacted North Carolina and Virginia communities and in the protection of the oldest living tree east of the Mississippi River, a bald cypress verified to be 2,628 years old and nearly 3,000 acres surrounding it along the Black River in North Carolina. 

The large cleanup is the culmination of efforts that began in 2012 when the Southern Environmental Law Center first went to court to seek cleanup of coal ash pollution on behalf of community groups in South Carolina and thereafter brought administrative and legal actions that sought coal ash cleanups in North Carolina (timeline of North Carolina coal ash). Every utility in South Carolina has excavated or is excavating its coal ash from every unlined lagoon in the state and cleanups are required and are underway at every coal ash site in North Carolina.  Coal ash has been and is being removed from coal ash pits owned by three utilities on rivers that flow through both states.

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Press Contacts

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]