State to create coal ash task force

North Carolina’s environmental agency said Tuesday that it will create a task force to review coal ash ponds in the aftermath of last week’s spill by Duke Energy on the Dan River.

The announcement came a day after the agency asked a judge to delay consideration of a settlement between the state and Duke over ash contamination at the Riverbend power plant, west of Charlotte, and its Asheville plant.

John Skvarla, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary, said his department will use “all available resources, including the knowledge we have gained during our environmental assessment and investigation into the spill of coal ash into the Dan River,” to prevent another spill.

A broken pipe at Duke’s retired Dan River plant dumped up to 82,000 tons of ash into the river Feb. 2.

The new task force will include experts in water resources, dam safety and solid waste management, the department said. It will be separate from the state’s investigation of the Dan River spill.

Environmental advocates say the department has previously refused to act on a wealth of information about the ash ponds at 14 Duke power plants in North Carolina. The data include annual dam inspections, ongoing groundwater tests, and reporting of contaminants in water drained from the ash ponds to lakes and rivers.

The state’s request to delay a proposed court settlement “is a sad commentary on the failure of DENR to protect the public and North Carolina’s clean water after saying under oath that Duke was violating the law,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The center represents four environmental groups, including the Charlotte-based Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, that have become parties to the state lawsuits over the Riverbend and Asheville plants. The groups say Duke should remove the ash from open ponds, which are typically close to waterways and drinking-water supplies such as Charlotte’s Mountain Island Lake.

DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said the state deserves credit for suing Duke last year. The lawsuits, eventually aimed at ash ponds at all 14 coal-fired plants in North Carolina, said ash contamination threatens the public and the environment. Groundwater has been contaminated at each plant.

“Those facilities have been there for 50 to 60 years,” Elliot said. “Secretary Skvarla came into office in January of last year and took action within 90 days.”

The state filed the lawsuits only after environmental groups filed required advance notice that they intended to sue Duke on their own.

Duke and the state reached a proposed settlement regarding the Riverbend and Asheville plants. The agreement called for Duke to pay a $99,000 fine for water-quality violations at the plant and to assess the extent of groundwater contamination.

The state asked for public comments on the deal. Nearly 5,000 came in, virtually all opposing the agreement as too lenient. The state and Duke then modified the agreement in October to set firmer deadlines for assessing contamination and fines for missing those dates.

On Monday, DENR asked Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway to postpone a decision on the settlement while the department “undertakes a comprehensive review of all North Carolina coal ash facilities in view of the recent coal ash release into the Dan River.”

Skvarla said the Dan River spill “may cause us to re-evaluate the proposed consent order, including the prioritization of the locations involved.”

Added Elliot, the department spokesman: “All options are on the table right now.”

Elliot said state law requires Duke, with state approval, to develop a plan to contain and clean up water contaminated by ash. “We can’t just unilaterally do this,” he said when asked if the state could force Duke to remove ash from the ponds.

Duke signals it, too, is looking for new approaches to its ash handling.

The company has retired seven of its 14 coal-fired power plants in the state and has said it will decide whether to remove the ash from ponds on those sites or leave it in place with waterproof caps. Ash at still-operating plants is increasingly being stored, in dry form, in landfills.

“We are eager to complete the work outlined in the proposed consent order and recognize the state would like to re-evaluate it,” Duke said in a statement Tuesday. “The event at Dan River is a good reason to take a fresh look at our plans moving forward, and we’ve already begun to do so.”

The environmental groups involved in the state lawsuits insist Duke should be forced to remove the ash stored in open ponds at the power plants. South Carolina’s S.C. Electric & Gas and the state-owned utility Santee Cooper have both agreed to remove ash near waterways.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said North Carolina continues to stall making Duke move its ash from ponds near waterways.

“The ‘comprehensive review’ of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds now proposed by DENR cannot be taken seriously,” he said. “Like the sweetheart settlement proposed in August, this move allows a dire threat to linger and falls short of the cleanup these sites need and citizens deserve.”

Holleman said Ridgeway had refused to quickly approve the proposed Riverbend-Asheville settlement. The Wake County judge had allowed the environmental groups to continue seeking internal records from Duke and public records from the state.

“I got the clear impression the judge was going to give it a hard look,” Holleman said. No hearing on the evidence in the case has been scheduled.

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