An aerial shot of the Dan River Steam Station, the power plant whose ash spilled into the Dan River. Duke stores coal ash, a byproduct of electricity generation, in wet ponds. Photo courtesy Duke Energy
An aerial shot of the Dan River Steam Station, the power plant whose ash spilled into the Dan River. Duke stores coal ash, a byproduct of electricity generation, in wet ponds. Photo courtesy Duke Energy


In an update to a Senate coal ash bill introduced last month, Senate leader have introduced a more stringent bill for cleaning up coal ash ponds.

By Gabe Rivin

A state Senate committee has approved updated legislation that sets firm deadlines for the closure of Duke Energy’s coal-ash ponds, while still allowing for a controversial method to close low-risk sites.

The revised bill, which was approved Tuesday in the Senate’s environment committee, would require Duke to close its highest-risk ponds by the end of 2019. Its mid-risk ponds would be forced to close by the end of 2024, while its lowest-risk ponds could stay open until the end of 2029.

The committee had previously considered a bill that would have left an open-ended deadline for the ponds’ closures. That bill, like the legislation approved Tuesday, was introduced by Republican senators Tom Apodaca and Phil Berger.

Berger is president pro tempore of the Senate, the highest position in the chamber.

In the revised legislation, the fate of the coal ash would vary, depending on the ponds’ designated statuses. At high-risk ponds, for example, Duke would be forced to remove the ash.

The utility would have several options for doing so. It could build onsite industrial landfills to house the ash. These landfills would include liners or some other system that can be shown to protect groundwater, said Robin Smith, a former assistant secretary for the environment at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and currently a private-practice attorney.

Duke could also send its ash to another facility that’s permitted to accept it.

Lower-risk ponds, however, would face less stringent requirements. Duke would be required to drain the water out of these ponds. But Duke could then place a cap – such as soil – over the ponds in order to prevent rain from mixing with the ash and carrying toxins into groundwater.

Environmentalists maintain that these caps won’t prevent continued groundwater contamination since groundwater can flow into and out of the bottom of the ponds, which are unlined.

The bill would also create a process allowing Duke to leave low-risk sites in their current states. A new Coal Ash Management Commission would be required to study these sites, gauging whether the ash impacts groundwater. If the commission recommended leaving the sites as they are, the General Assembly would have to pass legislation that agrees with the suggestions.

DENR has already sued Duke, alleging that all 14 of its coal-ash sites are contaminating groundwater.

DENR would have to initially create the list of low-risk, mid-risk and high-risk ponds. But the Coal Ash Management Commission would have the final say over this list, as well as Duke’s closure plans.

The commission’s members would include experts in waste management, manufacturing and public health. They would be appointed by the General Assembly and the governor.

The new commission could also reject the pond-closure plans if it finds that the plans are too financially burdensome for Duke or that they would harm electricity generation, according to Smith.

But this could be a difficult decision to make, she said.

“Applying the criteria could be extremely complex, and unlike the N.C. Utilities Commission the new commission will have few resources to put toward cost analysis,” she said in a blog post.

The bill still faces a Senate finance committee hearings Thursday morning before receiving attention from the full chamber.

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Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...