Ash spill shows need for strong oversight

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The spill of about 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water last week into the Dan River is not only a major ecological disaster but also a grim reminder that state and environmental watchdog agencies should not shorted on the crucial resources they need.

The spill resulted when an old drainage pipe under a 27-acre ash waste pond collapsed, draining the pond above into the river.

Coal ash contains a lethal combination of toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium. Test results released by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy showed arsenic and other potentially harmful contaminates were detected in the Dan River at levels just below state limits. But water samples tested by a lab hired by the Waterkeeper Alliance contained levels of arsenic nearly nine times higher than the state’s results and readings for other hazardous chemicals at levels far above state standards.

Environmentalists and government regulators have warned for years that the 31 ash waste ponds in North Carolina posed a serious potential threat to the environment. Duke Energy officials have always insisted that the ponds are safe.

Gov. Pat McCrory visited the site of the spill Thursday and rightly pledged to get it controlled and cleaned up as quickly as possible. But prevention is indeed worth far more than any cure.

The Dan River spill should come as a warning that the mission of environmental agencies and regulations are crucial for maintaining public health and safety.