Duke Energy has settled a federal lawsuit by environmental advocates by agreeing to remove and recycle the coal ash stored in ponds at its Buck power plant in Rowan County.
The Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance declared victory in forcing Duke to excavate ash that has contaminated groundwater and, advocates say, the Yadkin River.
Duke cast the announcement in a different light, saying it decided to build a recycling facility to make Buck’s ash an ingredient of concrete to comply with a recent state law. That decision, it contends, rendered the lawsuit moot.
“We’re thrilled that we could get this lawsuit to go away, but it was a business decision,” said Duke’s Paige Sheehan.
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Buck’s three ash ponds bordering the Yadkin hold more than 5 million tons of ash. Neighbors of the plant received many of the don’t-drink advisories state health authorities issued statewide in 2015 because their wells contained hexavalent chromium, which causes cancer and might come from ash. Most of those advisories were rescinded this year.
“I just keep saying, ‘Oh my God, this is all that we have asked for.’ After all the years of litigation and controversy, they’re finally going to remove it,” said a tearful Deborah Graham, a community advocate in the former company town near Buck called Dukeville. “We’re going to get clean water, which is what we wanted, but I could just not turn my back and leave that ash in the ground.”
A law passed this summer requires that Duke find alternative water sources for power plant neighbors. Rowan County officials have plans to extend municipal water lines to Dukeville. But many residents near Buck and Duke’s Allen plant in Belmont are still drinking bottled water the utility supplies.
“After two years of fighting the largest utility in the country, the Dukeville community will finally be assured of the two things we have been fighting for: a long-term supply of clean drinking water and meaningful ash clean up,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit settled by the agreement.
The settlement gives Duke until 2035 to excavate Buck’s ash, and it does not require that Duke clean up ash-contaminated groundwater. Scott said similar ash settlements with electric utilities in South Carolina showed that contaminant levels in water dropped once ash was removed from ponds.
Litigation is still pending over coal ash at Duke’s Mayo and Roxboro power plants in Person County, Cliffside on the Broad River in North Carolina, Allen and Marshall near Charlotte and Belews Creek in Stokes County.
The Buck agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed against Duke in 2014. It’s similar to one advocates struck with electric utilities in South Carolina three years ago, said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the groups.
“Duke Energy’s finally done the right thing for this community by entering into a binding agreement that requires the coal ash to be removed and recycled, just as has been done in South Carolina,” he said. Ash is also being recycled in South Carolina for use in concrete.
Holleman said settlements regarding other Duke plants could follow. He attributed Duke’s willingness to settle at Buck to public demands that Duke clean up its ash, legal pressure and Duke’s understanding of the cleanups underway in South Carolina.
A North Carolina law enacted this summer requires Duke to build ash recycling facilities, each capable of processing 300,000 tons a year, at three sites. The second site, after Buck, has to be identified by the end of 2016.
Much of Duke’s ash is too high in carbon to be used as an ingredient in making concrete. The recycling facilities will reprocess the ash to make it usable.
“This important step forward provides certainty for neighbors about our closure plans and allows us to recycle more coal ash to benefit our customers and North Carolina’s economy,” David Fountain, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president, said in a statement.