North Carolina to release cleanup plans for Duke coal ash ponds

Dive Brief:

  • The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is expected today to issue a final plan for cleaning up Duke Energy coal ash basins in the state, focusing on which basins must be completely excavated, and under what timeframe. 
  • DEQ previously proposed eight of Duke's 32 coal ash ponds would be classified as high risk, which would mean excavating and closing the sites by August 2019. Intermediate-risk sites would also be excavated but on a slower schedule, and low-risk ponds could be buried in place.
  • But no matter what the decision tomorrow, Carolina Public Press report litigation is a near certainty as the utility and environmental advocates want opposite outcomes and each has threatened to sue.

Dive Insight:

North Carolina's coal ash problems have been front and center since the Dan River spill in 2014, a site preliminarily targeted for fast cleanup. Advocates are pressing for more sites to be labeled as high priority, while the utility wants fewer.

While DEQ's final report is imminent, about the only thing likely to be decided tomorrow is which side will have to file the first lawsuit. Carolina Public Press reports it spoke with representatives from Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center about the proceeding and possible outcomes, with both indicating they would sue in the event of an unfavorable finding.

The North Carolina News & Observer ran an editorial this week by Amy Adams, a nine-year veteran of the DEQ who has been critical of the state's response to coal ash concerns in her current role as a campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, a grassroots conservation organization.

"DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public," she wrote. "North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today."

Adams acknowledged progress has been made on the issue, but said the Dan River spill has residents wary, and said "DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process."

The DEQ, meanwhile, says it is doing more than ever to respond to coal ash concerns.

“Duke Energy has stored coal ash in unlined ponds throughout North Carolina for more than 60 years, yet special interest groups waited until Gov. McCrory was elected to sound the alarms,” Crystal Feldman, deputy secretary for public affairs at the NC DEQ, wrote in an email to Utility Dive. “Gov. McCrory is the first governor in our state’s history to attack the decades-old problem of coal ash and hold Duke Energy accountable for its environmental violations.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last year that Duke Energy has until 2029 to complete its coal ash site clean-up in the state. In 2014, the utility revealed in regulatory filings that it had identified an estimated 200 leaks and seeps at 32 coal ash storage sites, with the leaks releasing over 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater daily.

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Filed Under: Generation Regulation & Policy