Business & Finance, Social Issues, Spring 2014 Articles

Dazed and Confused? Wolfpack Less Tuned in to the Duke Coal Ash Spill

North Carolina made national headlines after a Duke Energy coal ash spill that contaminated the Dan River on February 2nd. On that day nearly “39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water leaked from a storage pond at Duke Energy’s shuttered Eden power plant in North Carolina.”[1] The incident has been said to be the third-largest coal ash spill in our nation’s history.

The most recent PackPoll found that about three in ten students hadn’t heard of the event. Conversely, a recent WRAL sponsored poll found just 1 in ten adults said they hadn’t heard about the spill. Furthermore, half of the students (49%) who knew about the spill didn’t have an opinion about how well the state had managed the spill. Only 16% of adults said they had no opinion, while 61% disapproved. Students’ assessments were negative, though; only 6% approved and 45% disapproved.

This representative poll of NCSU undergraduates ran from April 8th-11th, and has a sample size of 1,059 students. The response rate was 21%, with a margin of sampling error of +/- 2.95%.

Democrats are more likely to disapprove

Digging deeper, partisan affiliation was correlated with approval/disapproval of the state’s handling of the spill. While there was no difference in the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who said they were familiar about the spill, 59% of Democrats disapproved of the state’s handling of the spill (38% had no opinion), but just 32% of Republicans disapproved (and 59% had no opinion).Chart2


Environmentalist are especially concerned with the dangerous contaminants that have been found in the surrounding area. Among them is thallium, which is a water-soluble compound that can damage “the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.”[2]

Response from environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, has been swift, with several subpoenas having already been issued in order to investigate the nature and causes of the spill. Paul Newton, the North Carolina President of Duke Energy spoke to the N.C. Joint Environmental Review Commission (ERC), about the company’s response to the incident. Newton issued the following statement, “Duke Energy is committed to working with policymakers and regulators to implement both short- and long-term solutions to coal ash management in North Carolina.”

Indeed, Duke Energy has indicated that it foot the bill for the cleanup of the Dan River and surrounding areas. Current estimates cite the cost of the cleanup as being near $2.5 billion.


It appears that NC State students are not overly concerned about North Carolina’s response to the ash spill, though they are much more likely to disapprove than approve of how it is being handled. Adults in the state, though, are concerned and they clearly disapprove of the state’s handling of the spill. Professor Cobb, NC State, suggests that Republican candidates in NC should pay attention to public opinion on this topic because in a rarity Democrats and Republicans largely agree. Environmental issues have become increasingly vulnerable to partisanship[3], but this is not the case for attitudes about the Dan River spill. Regardless of party affiliation, North Carolinians think Duke should have to pay to prevent spills at other locations that might be vulnerable to a spill. Yet, most candidates running to be the Republican nominee to face Kay Hagan argue against environmental regulations, and call evidence on climate change to be “junk science.”



[3] Guber, D.L. (2013). A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming. American Behavioral Scientist 57(1), 93-115.

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Click on the link below to download a PDF of the results from the 2014 spring poll, and the spas file for the actual data.

  Spring 2014 Poll Results (Topline Report)


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