In a 1958 company history of Carolina Power & Light Co., photos show governors Melville Broughton, Kerr Scott and Luther Hodges proudly standing among company executives as the power plants of the 1940s and 1950s came on line.
On page after page, the coal-fired steam plants built during the period are portrayed not as simple stone and metal structures pumping out electrical current. They are monuments of human achievement, pushing and powering wide swaths of North Carolina into the modern world.
Seventy years later, CP&L’s successor firms, first Progress Energy and now Duke Energy, have mothballed many of the plants built during that period, replacing them with cleaner-burning and more efficient natural-gas plants.
What Duke Energy has not done, as a part of those plant closings, is dispose of the coal ash that sits in reservoirs, some of them dozens of acres, around the shuttered plants.
Earlier this month, the worst predictions of environmental groups, which have been pushing the company to clean the ash ponds and dispose of the stuff in lined landfills, came true.
A storm-water pipe running under one of the ash ponds at the Dan River Steam Station, built by Duke Power in 1948 and closed in 2012, ruptured, causing water carrying the coal ash to pour into the nearby river.
The winter brown of the Dan River turned gray as it flowed northeast of the Rockingham County town of Eden.
Duke Energy said between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of the ash, which contains toxic metals, flowed into the river. Four days after the rupture, the company was still trying to completely shut off the flow.
About six miles downstream, Danville, Va., gets its drinking water from the Dan River. Further downstream, the river flows into Kerr Lake.
Duke Energy, state officials and environmental groups were still testing the water on Feb. 6. A full tally of the environmental damage probably won’t be known for months.
The Dan River plant is not unique.
Duke Energy continues to operate six coal-fired plants in North Carolina. It and its pre-merger partner, Progress Energy, have closed another seven plants in recent years. All sit on either rivers or lakes created by the companies by damming rivers. All have coal ash ponds.
Duke officials should recognize that the writing is on the wall.
As it has in South Carolina, the company needs to settle a lawsuit brought by the state at the behest of environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center. Duke officials should agree to clean up the ponds and dispose of the ash in lined landfills.
In a time when astounding feats of human achievement occur mostly unseen in labs or on computer screens, it is easy to forget how impressive the initial electrical powering of our state was by utilities like Duke, CP&L and their smaller predecessors.
Duke does not need to tarnish that legacy by needlessly allowing more environmental damage.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.