UpFront: March 2014
Ashes to lashes
It was already snowing in Charlotte, which was experiencing the first frosting of the winter storm that would blanket most of the East Coast, when Ed Martin reached Eden, snug up against the Virginia line. Upstream, the Dan River ran green and clear, but below Duke Energy Corp.’s old coal-fired plant, the water was grayer than the leaden, threatening sky. What our award-winning senior contributing editor found there — and has uncovered in his reporting since — will appear in next month’s magazine. Here, let him set the scene.
“It was the kind of somber, chilly day moviemakers use to create a feeling of impending disaster. I thought of The China Syndrome, the 1979 film about a power plant whose title became a catchphrase for our dread of a nuclear meltdown — fear that dictated the nation’s energy policies. But coal? Our gift from nature, cheap, bountiful and as familiar as the lumps in a naughty boy’s Christmas stocking and Grandma’s old scuttle?”
On Feb. 2, a security guard discovered that a broken pipe at the shuttered steam plant was pouring what has amounted to millions of gallons of a coal-ash slurry — containing arsenic, selenium and other toxins — into one of North Carolina most beautiful rivers and the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people. “And with the daily revelations of environmental damage, mounting cleanup costs, possible political scandal and federal grand-jury criminal investigation that followed came the growing realization that coal had again extracted a high cost for its services, this time possibly creating the state’s worst environmental disaster ever,” Ed says.
The fortunes of Charlotte-based Duke Energy — now the nation’s largest electric utility — and coal have been intertwined since demand for power in the Carolinas exceeded what harnessing the Catawba and other rivers could create. Which begs the question: Would we be better off if the company had been able to make more use of nuclear power to distance itself from such a legacy? That’s one of many we hope to answer next month.
Most of the comments from readers about the redesign we introduced last month have been positive, though here’s one I want to share: “I’ll get used to the new look eventually. I am originally from Virginia. Know how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the bulb and three to talk at length about how great the old bulb was.”