Most Duke Energy ash ponds are high-risk, draft report says

A concrete pipe below this Duke Energy coal ash pond failed in 2014, releasing ash into North Carolina’s Dan River.
A concrete pipe below this Duke Energy coal ash pond failed in 2014, releasing ash into North Carolina’s Dan River. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Nearly all of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina are classified as of high or intermediate risk in a draft summary by the state’s environmental agency.

The Department of Environmental Quality is required to release final hazard recommendations by Dec. 31. If the draft ratings stand, Duke would have to excavate most of its ponds instead of the cheaper option of draining and covering them.

The classifications will determine how and when, between 2019 and 2029, the ponds are closed. Those decisions are critical to both Duke and its customers.

Duke has estimated the costs of closing all 32 ponds at $3.4 billion. The company is expected to seek approval to pass those costs to its customers in the state.

DEQ called the draft summary, which is dated Nov. 30, an incomplete snapshot of an ongoing analysis. Duke said the summary does not reflect data the company only recently delivered to the state agency.

“It would be irresponsible and premature to make final assumptions before Duke has provided DEQ with all of the data it needs,” department spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco said by email. Hawco accused the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents advocacy groups, of releasing the summary “to corrupt the process.”

The law center said it obtained the spreadsheet of draft ratings among documents that are part of litigation over state enforcement actions over Duke’s ash handling.

“We’ve been told all along by DEQ that science and facts will determine the outcome,” said senior attorney Frank Holleman. “If the political leadership at headquarters decides to change (the draft ratings), we would expect a very detailed, fact-based reason to change what they’re getting from the field.”

The document ranks each of Duke’s ash ponds by some of the criteria set out in 2014 coal ash legislation, including the safety of dams and contamination of groundwater. Thirty-one of 32 ponds rate high-risk, such as those that could contaminate public water supplies.

It then rates the ponds after modifications that would affect dams or groundwater. Twenty-seven ponds are rated high risk, including the eight given that designation by state legislators last year. Three ponds are rated of intermediate risk and two low risk.

“I cannot speak to any draft, internal document from DEQ,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan. “We will wait for the designations that the agency is due to release by the end of the year.”

Duke said in June that it would dig up ash in 12 ponds. With that announcement, the company had committed to excavate 24 of its 36 ash ponds in the Carolinas.

But the 12 remaining ponds for which Duke had not charted a cleanup plan, by that point, hold more than 70 percent of the 108 million tons of ash held in North Carolina ponds.

The coal ash law enacted last year says high-risk ponds have to be closed by 2019 and intermediate-risk ponds by 2024. The law gives two closure options: Remove the ash and convert the pond to a lined landfill, or move the ash to a lined landfill elsewhere.

Low-risk ponds have to close by 2029 but may be drained and capped to keep out water. The draft report rates as low risk only two retired ponds at the Cliffside power plant in Rutherford County.

DEQ’s year-end recommendations aren’t final. The agency has to send notices to affected counties, open a public comment period, and hold hearings on them.

They then go to the new Coal Ash Management Commission, an oversight board.

The commission, however, is in limbo after Gov. Pat McCrory challenged its legal authority. McCrory says only the governor’s office, not legislative leaders, may appoint the members of such panels.

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in June but has not yet ruled.

Commission chairman Michael Jacobs is worried that, once the legal case is resolved, the commission can’t thoroughly review DEQ’s recommendations by the deadlines set by legislation.

If the commission doesn’t act within 60 days of receiving them, DEQ’s recommendations will automatically go into effect.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender