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Timeline: Dan River coal ash spill

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Feb. 2, 2014: A 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined ash pond at the closed Dan River Steam Station breaks. Duke Energy estimates at the time that 82,000 tons of coal ash and 24 to 27 million gallons of water from the 27-acre pond have drained into the Dan River.

Feb. 8: Duke Energy crews plug the leak.

Feb. 9: Duke Energy sets up an emergency piping system to divert wastewater away from the pond.

Feb. 10: Federal prosecutors serve the N.C. environmental agency with two subpoenas. N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources withdraw deal with Duke. (After nonprofits threatened lawsuits against Duke over coal ash leaks throughout the state, DENR officials took over the suit and proposed a deal that included a $99,000 fine for pollution at stream stations near Asheville and Charlotte.)

Feb. 11: Gov. Pat McCrory says a new state task force will be created in the next 30 days to assess all of Duke’s coal ash dumps in the state.

Feb. 12: Duke Energy downgrades its estimate of how much coal ash was released. The new range is 30,000 to 39,000 tons. DENR’s tests show levels of arsenic and other metals are safe.

Feb. 13: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of N.C. opens an “official criminal investigation of a suspected felony.” Duke Energy officials announce an “unpermitted discharge” of water and treated wastewater of fewer than 1,000 gallons from the piping system set up on Feb. 9.

Feb. 14: State environmental officials say a second pipe at Duke Energy’s closed Dan River Steam Plant threatens to start a new round of leakage from its coal ash storage ponds.

Feb. 17: McCrory, at N.C. AT&T, speaks about the second leak. He says his administration will require Duke to fix the new problems at the Dan River, correct the damage left by the initial pipe rupture and quickly solve the rest of the company’s coal ash problems throughout North Carolina.

Feb. 18: DENR says that groundwater containing unsafe levels of arsenic is leaching into the Dan River and that coal ash has spread as far as 70 miles downstream. Federal prosecutors serve the state environmental agency with 20 more subpoenas seeking documents and ordering 19 state employees to testify before a grand jury. It also orders state officials to hand over any records pertaining to investments, cash or other items of value received from Duke Energy employees. The subpoenas are dated Feb. 11 and 18.

Feb. 21: State officials say Duke Energy has plugged the second pipe that was leaking arsenic-laced groundwater into the Dan River.

Feb. 24: DENR specialists begin sampling fish upstream from the spill to get data from an area unaffected by the spill and then will sample sites downstream. Results will be published.

Feb. 28: Duke resumes cleaning deposits of coal ash in shallow water but gives up efforts in deeper water. The state issues a second violation notice to Duke Energy for failing to prevent the spill and violating state water-quality standards of the river.

March 4: Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway rules that state officials failed to properly apply the law and that they must force Duke Energy to “take immediate action” against groundwater pollution at coal ash ponds. Duke reviews plans to close a coal ash pond at the defunct Weatherspoon Steam Electric Plant in Robeson County.

March 5: State officials tell Duke Energy to do video inspections of all pipes at the ash ponds near 14 of its current and former coal-fired power plants.

March 10: State and federal officials deny published reports of a third, 12-inch pipe leak. The Feb. 18 federal subpoena is made public.

March 12: In response to the governor’s request for a detailed report on its coal ash sites, Duke Energy sends a four-page letter to McCrory and DENR Secretary John Skvarla detailing efforts to deal with the coal ash spill. DENR rejects the response as inadequate.

March 20: The Southern Environmental Law Center files motions to allow four conservation groups working on the Dan River to participate in the state court enforcement action against Duke Energy. The group assembles documentation showing that Duke Energy and DENR have known about the problems since the early 1990s. State environmental officials investigate a crack in a dam around a Duke Energy coal ash pond near the Cape Fear River in Chatham County. State regulators cite the former power plant site for improperly pumping an estimated 61.8 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into the river.

March 28: Duke Energy asks a judge to shield its records from regulators and environmental groups while a federal criminal probe is ongoing. DENR says tests of surface water found thallium near Cliffside plant in Gaston County and downstream from Duke’s Asheville plant. DENR also issues Duke Energy a citation for a large crack in a coal ash dam at the Cape Fear plant in Chatham County.

April 4: Ridgeway rules that Duke Energy cannot have a blanket order to keep coal ash records away from environmental groups.

April 7: The Environmental Management Commission files intent to appeal Ridgeway’s March 6 ruling that Duke Energy should immediately clean up the spill.

April 13: Utility workers recover a piece of metal pipe that might have been a part of the broken drainage line that spilled coal ash into the Dan.

April 14: Duke unveils plans to vacuum up a 2,500-ton deposit near Schoolfield Dam in Danville, Va., which accumulated 6 to 8 percent of the entire spill.

April 16: McCrory announces a proposal to prevent future coal ash spills. The plan includes closing all of Duke Energy’s existing coal ash ponds in the state or converting them to solid-waste landfills, and tightening controls on coal ash ponds. Duke Energy and N.C. State release a report that says levels of contaminants are at acceptable levels for livestock and irrigation.

April 22: Duke’s N.C. president, Paul Newton, tells legislators that customers likely will bear the cost of an estimated $10 billion cleanup of all the company’s coal ash sites.

May 12: Duke Energy unveils the Total Clean Station and other technology at the start of a six-week effort to recover deposits from the spill.

May 13: The Person County Board of Commissioners considers a resolution calling for the coal ash to be stored on Duke Energy’s property and not the Upper Piedmont Landfill.

May 22: The EPA and Duke Energy sign a formal agreement requiring the power company to clean up the Dan River spill, put the waste in a lined landfill and reimburse the federal government for its supervision of the process.

May 22-23: The EPA releases data showing diminishing percentages of coal ash near the retired Dan River Steam Station and increasing levels near the downstream community of Danville, Va.

May 27: House Bill 1226 proposes regulations including rules that would require all storage ponds to stop taking new ash by the summer of 2014 and prohibit public utilities from passing on the cost of pollution cleanup to customers.

June 9: Environmental and wildlife officials in North Carolina and Virginia sign an agreement with Duke Energy for the cleanup of the Feb. 2 spill. The agreement requires Duke to pay any “reasonable” cost associated with the spill and for ongoing monitoring by government agencies.

June 10: The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis issues a report stating that Duke Energy doesn’t need a price hike to offset cleanup costs at other coal ash ponds.

June 16: Republicans in the state Senate introduce legislation that builds on but goes beyond what McCrory recommended earlier that spring. The highest-risk ponds would have to close by 2019.

June 23: The state Senate gives its approval for coal ash regulation. Senate Republicans rebuff Democrats’ efforts to add more storage ponds to list of places where coal ash must be removed by 2019, and also defeat Democrats’ efforts to make sure Duke’s customers will not shoulder the cost of closing the ponds.

July 3: The House completes its version of the bill to close the state’s ash ponds by 2029; the bill returns to the Senate.

July 16: Federal and state agencies call a temporary halt to coal ash removal efforts. Efforts were suspended after removing about 3,000 tons of mixed ash and sediment from three sandbar-like deposits along the Dan River and from water treatment plants in two downstream Virginia cities, Danville and South Boston.

July 17: The Southern Environmental Law Center objects to Duke Energy’s claim that the cleanup of the Dan River is complete, saying that Duke had “not accounted for 94 percent of the coal ash waste that was spilled into the Dan River.”

July 22: Public health officials lift an advisory for recreational use of the Dan River.

Aug. 1: The General Assembly ends the session without passing coal ash regulation.

Aug. 7: Duke Energy reports to federal authorities that it spent $20 million responding to the spill in the first five months after the incident.

Aug. 13: DENR tells Duke Energy to submit plans for cleaning up coal ash ponds at four “high-priority” coal plants by Nov. 15.

Aug. 19: General Assembly leaders agree on a compromise bill about the coal ash cleanup.

Aug. 20: Both the state House and Senate approve the Coal Ash Management Act, a measure that leaders call a “first in the nation” bill that closes all coal ash ponds statewide and manages removal of ash to safe locations. Environmentalists say the measure leaves too much decision-making to an appointed board.

Sept. 3: Four conservation groups sue Duke Energy for allegedly violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Sept. 9: McCrory refuses to sign the bill passed by the legislature Aug. 20, stating the major reason for not signing is the creation of a coal ash oversight commission.

Sept. 16: EPA Administrator Mark Nuhfer writes a letter to DENR objecting to DENR authorization for Duke to remove water from ash ponds at 14 sites into nearby streams and lakes on Aug. 28. DENR retracts its authorization.

Sept. 24: Duke Energy announces the creation of a $10 million Water Resources Fund for projects benefiting waterways in the Carolinas and for waterways downstream from Duke Energy plants that flow into Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.

Oct. 9: Duke Energy identifies 830 drinking-water wells within roughly a half-mile of its coal ash basins statewide.

Nov. 5: Duke Energy says it would cost $3.4 billion to comply with North Carolina’s new coal ash law. The law requires that Duke close all ash basins at its 14 sites.

Nov. 6: The N.C. Division of Water Quality gives Duke Energy 30 days to improve its plan to monitor the groundwater contamination near its coal ash ponds.

Nov. 13: Duke Energy unveils plans to start moving coal ash from the retired Dan River Steam Station by rail and burying it at a lined landfill in Virginia. McCrory and former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Martin sue top legislators over the makeup of the state’s new Coal Ash Management Commission, saying the board’s composition violates the constitutional separation of powers by granting the legislature control of an environmental enforcement activity that resides with the executive branch. The new board will oversee the cleanup.

Dec. 4: Wake Forest University researcher Dennis Lemly releases a study that puts the price at $295.5 million (and counting) for the damage from the spill.

Dec. 7: On a CBS “60 Minutes” report, McCrory says that Duke’s record on coal ash is “quite poor” and that Duke CEO Lynn Good said Duke needed more time to study how best to clean up its coal ash deposits around the state.


— Compiled by Diane Lamb, News Researcher


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