Duke Energy filed plans Friday to keep two-thirds of its North Carolina coal ash in the ground, including ash stored at Lake Norman and Lake Wylie, instead of excavating it.
State regulators will decide whether to approve the plans, which were released to comply with a federal rule on ash. But environmental advocates who say ash near water supplies should be dug up and hauled away quickly attacked.
How Duke should dispose of its 111 million tons of ash stored in watery basins in North Carolina has been debated since a 2014 spill into the Dan River.
Ash contains heavy metals that can be toxic and can contaminate water. Groundwater has been tainted under all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and questions remain about whether contaminants have reached private wells.
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Duke and some independent experts say some ash can safely be left where it is, in basins drained of water and covered by protective caps. That’s also the cheapest, quickest way to deal with it and is sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Safe basin closure decisions are guided by science and engineering for each facility,” said spokeswoman Paige Sheehan. “In many cases, closing basins in place by removing the water and installing a protective cap better protects the environment than excavation and prevents the need to redispose the material somewhere else. Safely capping basins also limits neighbor disruption that could take decades if a large basin is excavated and manages cost.”
Duke will excavate ash where science indicates it is the best option, she said.
Advocates who have sparred with Duke for three years insist that the only way to protect water supplies is to dig up and haul away ash.
“If Duke Energy gets its way, communities around Lakes Norman and Wylie, in Person County, in Stokes County, and on the Broad River near Shelby will forever be plagued by leaking, polluting, and unlined coal ash pits in their neighborhoods and on their lakes and rivers,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents environmental advocates. “It is time for Duke Energy to stop this irresponsible behavior and clean up the coal ash mess it has made in North Carolina, for the benefit of all North Carolinians and their clean water."
Duke has previously been ordered or agreed to excavate ash at seven of its North Carolina power plants, and last month reached a court settlement doing the same at an eighth plant, Buck in Yadkin County.
The six power plants that remain – where Duke plans to cap ash in place – hold its largest stockpiles of ash.
They include the Allen plant on Lake Wylie, Marshall on Lake Norman, Belews Creek in Stokes County, Mayo and Roxboro in Person County, and Rogers in Rutherford County.
“That doesn’t surprise me, since their pocketbook is such a priority for them,” said Amy Brown, a Belmont resident who lives next to the Allen power plant. Brown is among plant neighbors who have relied on bottled water for 18 months because of contaminants in their wells, although the source hasn’t been confirmed.
“They’re all leaking, they’re all unlined, so what makes one toxic and not the other? Why does it take a lawsuit, when you’re being backed into a corner, before you do the right thing for everybody? Your neighbors didn’t create this problem.”