Take a close look at a potential coal ash spill on the Cape Fear River
North Carolina’s environment department ordered Duke Energy on Monday to excavate millions of tons of coal ash from six power plants, including two near Charlotte on lakes Norman and Wylie.
Ash has been mixed with water and stored in open, unlined ponds at Duke’s coal-fired power plants for decades. But a 2014 ash spill into the Dan River, near the Virginia line, exposed the potential for heavy metals in ash to contaminate water, including the groundwater near those ponds.
The result was lawsuits and a new state law that ordered Duke to phase out its ash ponds, with the timing and method of closing the ponds dependent on their risks to nearby water supplies.
Monday’s decision, if not successfully challenged, means that all 31 of the company’s N.C. ash ponds will be drained, with the ash dug up and removed as environmental advocates have long demanded. But Duke warned that the DEQ order will extend the job of cleaning up its ash by decades and add billions of dollars to the cost, with customers likely paying the bill.
“It’s the feeling of finally finishing the race,” said Amy Brown, a Belmont mother who has pressed Duke to remove the ash stored at its Allen power plant on Lake Wylie since contaminants were found in her well water four years ago.
Brown believes the hundreds of people who turned out for recent public meetings, and a report saying Allen has some of the worst ash-contaminated groundwater in the U.S., helped convince DEQ to order the excavations. But nearly a year after her home was connected to Belmont’s municipal lines, Brown still uses bottled water for cooking.
“You can’t just flip a switch and automatically trust again,” she said.
In November, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had decided that ash ponds at seven power plants — including Allen and Marshall on Lake Norman — were of low risk. Duke had connected local well owners to public water supplies and fixed problems with the dams impounding the ash, DEQ said.
The low-risk classification was important because, under state law, it meant that DEQ might let Duke close the ponds in the quickest, cheapest way possible. That method is draining water from the ponds, leaving ash in place, and capping it with a cover to keep out rainwater.
Duke had also proposed a hybrid approach of reducing the footprint of the ash and placing a smaller cap over it.
Instead, the department on Monday ordered Duke to dig up the ash, a laborious task, and relocate it in lined landfills. The order affects nine ponds at six power plants, including Allen, Marshall, Belews Creek in Stokes County, Cliffside/Rogers in Cleveland and Rutherford counties, and the Mayo and Roxboro plants north of Raleigh near the Virginia state line.
“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” Secretary Michael Regan said in a statement. “Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper administration.”
Potential customer costs
Duke had already begun or finished ash excavations at 22 other N.C. ponds under state law requirements, legal settlements or the company’s own decisions.
Duke said in a statement that it will review the DEQ decision and “continue to support solutions that protect our customers and the environment.”
Science and engineering analyses show that capping ash at the six power plants would protect public health and the environment, Duke said. Excavating ash would take decades, it said, beyond the state and federal deadlines of 2029 and 2034 to finish the cleanup.
Excavating the 16 million tons of ash in a pond at the Marshall plant alone will take 32 years, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.
Excavation will also add $4 billion to $5 billion to the previous cleanup estimates of $5.6 billion for the Carolinas, which had assumed the nine ponds targeted Monday would be capped, Sheehan said.
The DEQ decision might increase costs to Duke’s customers.
The state Utilities Commission ruled last June that Duke could recover in rates the $546 million it had already spent to close ash storage sites across the state. The commission also fined Duke $70 million, saying it had mismanaged its ash. That reduced the hit to customers to $476 million.
“We would certainly seek cost recovery,” for the excavations ordered Monday, Sheehan said. “The Utilities Commission has already determined in previous cases that it is an appropriate expense in the life cycle of the power plants.”
DEQ spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said cost estimates are beyond the scope of what state law instructs the department to consider in making ash pond closure decisions.
The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which has represented environmental groups in lawsuits that sought to force Duke to remove its ash, called the decision “one of the most important steps in the state’s history to protect North Carolina’s waters and its citizens from toxic pollution.”
Duke has until August to submit its excavation plans, including where the excavated ash will go and how long the process will take. Duke will have the option of offering other options, such as recycling the ash for use in concrete, in addition to excavating it.
“DEQ elects (excavation) because removing the coal ash from unlined (ash) surface impoundments ... is more protective than leaving the material in place,” the department’s orders said for each of the affected power plants. “DEQ determines that (excavation) is the most appropriate closure method because removing the primary source of groundwater contamination will reduce uncertainty and allow for flexibility in the deployment of future remedial measures.”
Duke has retired nine of its 16 Carolinas coal plants as electric utilities move away from coal fuel to cheaper, cleaner natural gas and renewable energy. The company told N.C. regulators last summer that it plans to close its seven remaining coal plants in the state over the next 30 years.