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The toxic coal ash legacy left for residents of Southern VA and Eden, NC

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Maybe tomorrow, or the week after next, the coal ash spill in Eden, North Carolina will recede from the media’s and the public’s memory as novel news stories take center stage. But for residents of Eden, North Carolina and Southern Virginia, the coal ash spill will likely leave a toxic legacy that lasts at least a generation.

In early February, a 48-inch storm pipe at a Duke Energy coal ash pond in North Carolina ‘leaked’ thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River. Not too long thereafter, a second leak was found in a different 36-inch storm pipe that still has not been fully contained.

For all of their apologies in the wake of both storm pipe leaks, Duke Energy broke a promise that every U.S. energy company implicitly or explicitly makes with the residents around which its facilities are located: it neglected to take the proper steps to ensure that its business practices did not negatively affect human, wildlife, and environmental health. And now the residents affected by the coal ash spill will have to bear the burden of Duke Energy’s cost-saving business practices.

Even worse for residents directly affected by Duke Energy’s most recent environmental disaster, the public relations game that’s usually played, and the lip service which is usually paid by the offending entity and their governmental partners, doesn’t always translate into pre-spill levels of remediation. Indeed, when it comes to a spill the size of Duke Energy’s, the best remedial outcome may be achieving a particular pre-spill level of water quality that maintains human and environmental health.

While most Virginians and North Carolinian’s go on with their lives with only a residual memory of this incident in the months and years to come, history has demonstrated that without a constant stream of public attention and pressure, companies like Duke Energy quickly return to business as usual. As long as the spotlight is on them, Duke Energy will attempt to appear humbled and on the road to long-lasting reforms that mitigate any events like the coal ash spills from happening again in the future.

But the bottom line for Duke Energy is…the bottom line. Duke Energy’s upper management no more cares about environmental health than it does about the potential for multiple dimensions of reality. Duke Energy’s primary impulse is turning a larger and larger profit each quarter, not safety precautions, as witnessed by this most recent spill of toxic coal ash.

The solution is a regulatory framework that won’t allow Duke Energy to shun its legal and moral duties. The solution is also understanding that regulations are not inimical to free markets. In fact, environmental regulations may be the only instrument that allows free markets to work efficiently without destroying the natural environment upon which companies like Duke Energy depend.

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