NORTH CAROLINA (WTVD) -- If you live close to a Duke Energy coal ash pit, what should you do in case of emergency? If a dam wall bursts, who should you call? Could your home or business be impacted?
You should be able to find answers to these questions in publicly available documents published by Duke Energy and available on the energy giant's website. At least, that's according to the federal EPA.
In many cases, however, the specific answers have been blacked out by Duke officials, and an environmental group in Chapel Hill filed notice Wednesday to hold the company accountable.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), along with other national environmental groups, sent Duke Energy and government officials both in North Carolina and in other states where Duke Energy has coal ash lagoons, notices that they intend to sue the company for withholding that critical dam safety information.
Here in the Tar Heel state, SELC is representing multiple community organizations with a stake in 10 Duke Energy coal ash facilities across the state: Appalachian Voices, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, MountainTrue, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sound Rivers, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Winyah Rivers Foundation.
Earthjustice sent similar notices on behalf of community organizations in Kentucky and Indiana.
Under the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule enacted in 2015, Duke Energy was required to make public Emergency Action Plans for each of its coal ash storage sites where a failure would likely result in loss of human life or serious harm to the environment by April 2017.
That very thing happened on February 2, 2014, along the Dan River, sending a wake-up call to residents and lawmakers alike.
Those plans are required to include inundation maps to show the surrounding areas that would be damaged by a failure of Duke Energy's dangerous coal ash storage sites and also the names and contact information for emergency responders.
The idea is to let communities know the risks they face and how to respond when a coal ash disaster occurs.
Unlike other utilities, Duke Energy has redacted huge chunks of information from its plans. Maps, emergency contact information, and other important safety information are hidden behind black boxes.
According to SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman, Duke Energy is the only utility company in the country that is withholding this information from the public.
In all of Duke Energy's Emergency Action Plans, including states that face flooding and hurricanes, Duke Energy has blacked out the coal ash spill maps and information for how to contact emergency responders in the event of a disaster.
An example of Duke Energy's blacked-out emergency plans can be seen here.
"Of all the utilities in the country, only Duke Energy is withholding this information," said Holleman. "What does Duke Energy have to hide? Duke Energy is scared of the public reaction when people learn how much of their communities will be devastated by coal ash and toxic water pollution if Duke Energy's dangerous coal ash storage sites fail. North Carolina's communities near Duke Energy's coal ash sites deserve better than this."
ABC11 reached out to Duke Energy for comment and they said they have yet to receive the notices; however, they did make the following comments:
- The media and the public will quickly recognize this as the latest attempt to use fear and the courts to upend public policy that directs the safe closure of hundreds of ash basins across the nation
- As we prepared the plans, we reviewed state statutes specific to managing public information around critical infrastructure. While that drove decisions, we will review the approach taken by other utilities and ask state regulators for further guidance
- Very importantly, we want our communities to rest assured that public safety and safe operations are our highest priorities
- Our Emergency Action Plans are but one aspect of the planning steps we take to prepare for an unlikely event. We provide full versions of these plans to local emergency planners and first responders and also meet annually with them to review so they have quick access to our site information and can be ready to respond if needed
- Ash basins continue to operate safely and are highly regulated. For example, engineers conduct weekly inspections, and state regulators oversee that process and conduct their own inspections. We continue to perform any necessary maintenance until basins are safely closed
"Duke Energy has been caught red-handed with coal ash on its face acting illegally by withholding important safety information from the public," Holleman said. "After we made it public that Duke Energy's illegally withholding public safety information, Duke Energy now says it will reconsider whether it will make public this important information about the risk from its irresponsible storage of coal ash. North Carolina communities cannot risk waiting until Duke Energy moves all of its coal ash from its primitive, unlined pits and away from our rivers and lakes to safe storage.
"It's important to remember that Duke Energy operating companies by their own admission are coal ash criminals and remain on nationwide criminal probation today," Holleman added. "The Dan River spill shows that we cannot trust Duke Energy statements that it's storing its coal ash safely."