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Dan River coal ash disaster: An accident waiting to happen

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Duke Energy says about 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River from a broken pipe at its retired Dan River Steam Station, resulting in the third-largest spill in U.S. history.

EDEN, N.C. — At 6 that morning, a guard at the Duke Energy plant made his rounds and noticed that the coal ash ponds by the river were iced over. That’s all — nothing dramatic or unusual for a cold February dawn.

But eight hours later, on that Super Bowl Sunday, that same guard checked again and did a double take. The water level in the larger of the two ponds looked suspiciously low.

By midnight, a platoon of environmental experts was on the scene at the Dan River Steam Station, trying to staunch the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would later describe what happened that day at the retired power plant near Eden as the “sudden collapse” of a drainage pipe running under the main pond.

But the problems that led to that collapse were years in the making: years of coal fired power production at the riverside power plant; years of burnt coal waste accumulating in the nearby ponds; years of corrosion and seepage eating a seam into a vulnerable metal pipe beneath 1 million tons of coal ash; years of Duke Energy giving short shrift to early warnings from engineers about that very pipe; and years of state officials not always holding utility executives to high-enough dam safety standards.

Read full story: The Greensboro News & Record