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Duke’s coal ash plan needs to show urgency

Duke Energy officials say they will meet a Saturday deadline set by N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory to spell out what the utility plans to do about its coal ash ponds in this state. A judge’s ruling last week should have given the company a mighty – and much needed – shove toward the right response.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said last Thursday that Duke Energy must take “immediate action” to stop toxins leaking from coal ash ponds at its N.C. plants. He also said the utility must develop a plan to clean up contaminated groundwater at the 14 sites where 106 million tons of ash are stored, 84 million tons of which soak in lagoons.

Duke has known about this problem for years, but officials have dragged their feet on addressing it – undoubtedly trying to delay paying the costs to fix it. Worse, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has enabled the company’s inaction through lax oversight and moves that failed to adequately protect North Carolina’s groundwater.

Ridgeway pointed out those failures in his ruling, reversing state regulators’ outlandish contention in 2012 that the utility did not have to take “immediate corrective action when toxic chemicals in the groundwater exceeded water quality standards.”

A massive coal ash spill last month – the third largest in the nation’s history – that spewed tons of toxic materials into the Dan River finally got state regulators’ attention. With an unflattering national spotlight shining on the state’s actions, regulators over the past month or so have cited Duke plants for a string of violations – including several for lacking required storm water permits. Ironically, such a permit – because of testing and inspections that could be required – might have alerted officials to the problem that sent 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan.

Yes, moving these ash ponds away from drinking water supplies won’t come cheap. But as environmental activist D.J. Gerken noted, “Duke has profited from doing the cheapest thing for decades” in how it stored its coal ash. “Now it’s time for them to pay the bill.”

Duke CEO Lynn Good feels differently. Though the company quickly promised to bear the costs of the spill clean-up, she said the utility will seek to recover the cost of ash pond remediation through customer rates. She argues that ash was created over decades to generate electricity and disposal is a cost associated with that. The N.C. Utilities Commission would have to decide on such a rate increase.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has already stepped up to say he would oppose passing on ash-removal costs to ratepayers, and rightly so. Duke’s coal ash storage practices have long been criticized and deemed problematic. While the company plodded toward tackling it, last month’s spill occurred.

On Monday, the governor, taking questions at a forum at a school, lamented about Duke that “what’s discouraging about this Dan River situation, and several others that are coming up now, is the responsibility wasn’t taken care of somewhere within that organization.”

We share his dismay.

Good vowed last week a Duke response that will “ensure safety, good environmental stewardship and doing the right thing for the citizens of North Carolina.” Duke must make good on that pledge. But state officials must work hard as well to ensure those priorities are always in place.

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