Updated: Duke Energy threatened with lawsuit over coal ash plan for Belews Creek
A coalition of environmental groups this week sent Duke Energy a notice of intent to sue over Clean Water Act violations.
The group identified violations at Duke's Belews Creek facility in Stokes County, N.C., that include dumping of coal ash, contamination of groundwater, and illegally using Belews Creek as part of its wastewater pollution system.
A Duke spokeswoman called the excavation option for coal ash at Belews Creek expensive, disruptive and unnecessary, adding that Duke will "continue to advocate for smart ash basin closure plans that are customized for each site."
In February 2014, security officials noticed a coal ash spill from Duke Energy’s Dan River Stream station in Eden, N.C. The Environmental Protection Agency said about 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water were released into the river. Further upstream, pollution was also found at Duke’s Belews Creek station.
In 2015, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations related to coal ash across North Carolina. Through court orders and agreements with citizens groups and regulators, Duke agreed to excavate the ash and move it to dry, lined storage facilities at 10 of its 16 sites in the Carolinas. Duke has submitted plans to permanently close the Belews Creek basin and its other North Carolina basins that meet the requirements in the federal coal combustion residuals rule.
But environmental groups are disputing the method of closure and a coalition of groups is now suing to force Duke to clean up Belews Creek and other sites. The coalition includes Appalachian Voices, the North Carolina Conference of NAACP Branches and the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Duke’s Belews Creek plant is near the predominantly African-American community of Walnut Tree, N.C.
The leaks result in elevated levels of pollutants, including arsenic, barium, boron, bromide, chloride, chromium, mercury, molybdenum, radionuclides, selenium, sulfate, strontium, thallium and vanadium, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Duke is asking North Carolina regulators to approve a $500 million rate increase, in part to help foot the bill for cleaning up its ash spills. Most of the costs are centered on spills in North Carolina, but Duke also plans to file a rate case in South Carolina in 2018.
Duke has said coal ash cleanup costs could exceed $5 billion over the next several years, significantly higher than previous estimates.
“The people and communities living in Walnut Tree, the Belews Lake area, and the Dan River Basin deserve to be protected from Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution, both now and in the future,” Myra Blake, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.
Duke spokeswoman Danielle Peoples called excavation the “most expensive, most disruptive and unnecessary closure option.” Scientists conclude that such “extreme plans can actually cause more harm to the environment than good,” she said, citing an estimate from Duke Energy engineers that excavating the Belews Creek ash basin and relocating the material would require about 12 years and more than 600,000 truck trips.
Duke “will continue to advocate for our customers and smart ash basin closure plans that are customized for each site,” she told Utility Dive via email. “There continues to be no evidence that the Belews Creek facility is impacting nearby drinking water wells,” she added.
Updates in the last two paragraphs with comments from Duke Energy. Also updates to clarify that Duke is closing Belews Creek and other coal ash basins and the issue under contention is clean up at Belews Creek, not a coal ash spill.
- Winston-Salem Journal Groups focus on Belews Creek coal ash cleanup
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