shows a coal plant with steam puffing from one of the smokestacks, a concern in the fight against climate change, air pollution
Duke Energy stores 6.9 million tons of coal ash at the Mayo Steam Station and 16.4 million tons at the nearby Roxboro Steam Station, pictured, which sits on the shores of the Hyco Reservoir. Photo courtesy Southern Environmental Law Center

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By Greg Barnes

Duke Energy says it plans to appeal an April 1 order by the state Department of Environmental Quality to excavate coal ash basins at six of its power plant sites in North Carolina.

The department spent months conducting a scientific review and listening to people affected by contamination from the nine coal ash pits, at least some of which are leaching into the groundwater, before ordering Duke Energy on April 1 to excavate all 31 coal ash basins in the state and place their contents into lined landfills.

“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” DEQ Secretary Michael  Regan said in a statement the day the order was issued.

The order exhilarated Amy Brown of Belmont and Deborah Graham of Salisbury, who live next to coal ash basins and have been fighting Duke Energy for years. Shortly after the order was announced, activists held an event to celebrate.

Now they don’t understand how Duke can continue to fight back, potentially tying up the DEQ’s order in the courts for years.

Brown said she is disappointed but not surprised by Duke’s decision to appeal.

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“Duke Energy cannot respect that the DEQ made a decision that was in the best interest of public health and the environment,” Brown said. “This nightmare will never end until they clean up after themselves.”

Duke Energy has agreed to excavate eight power plant sites and is now working on those efforts. But it says the DEQ studied the remaining sites — nine coal ash basins at six sites — and rated them as low risk.

To excavate those nine basins “would impose a financial burden on our customers and the economy of the Carolinas through the most expensive and disruptive closure option possible,” Duke said in a statement.

“The process by which NCDEQ arrived at its decision lacked full consideration of the science and engineering, and we will provide those details when we file an appeal before the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings in the near future,” Duke’s statement said.

Megan Thorpe, a DEQ spokeswoman, said the DEQ stands behind its order.

Duke, one of the world’s largest power companies, estimates that excavating the final nine coal basins would add as much as $5 billion to the price of cleanup. The company estimates that it will cost $5.6 billion to clean up those it has already agreed to excavate.

It remains unclear who would pay for the excavation, but Duke hinted earlier this month that ratepayers would bear at least some of the costs.

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Last year, the N.C. Utilities Commission allowed Duke Energy to charge ratepayers $546 million for the cost of excavation, but it ruled that it wouldn’t let the company charge for any future costs and fined it $70 million for mishandling the coal ash.

A “polluter pays” bill filed at the General Assembly would forbid a company with coal ash reserves from charging ratepayers to cover the costs of cleanup and would also give the DEQ secretary the power to issue fines. The bill, sponsored by Democrats, has an uncertain future at the legislature.

Duke’s decision to appeal rankles Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Duke Energy’s refusal to accept responsibility for cleaning up its dangerous coal ash pits is a slap in the face to the communities in North Carolina living with the pollution from Duke’s leaking, unlined pits,” Holleman said in a statement. “Duke Energy’s decision to fight these cleanups ignores the science confirming that its sites have been polluting our water for decades and will continue to do so for centuries. And it places the public and our rivers and lakes at continued risk of another coal ash catastrophe from the next hurricane or structural failure.”

Holleman noted that utilities in South Carolina and Virginia have been ordered to excavate all of their coal ash basins.

Duke has advocated for capping the remaining nine coal ash basins in place rather than excavating the ash and moving it to lined basins that are expected to keep contamination from groundwater.

Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned to generate electricity. It has been shown to contain arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum, barium, boron, hexavalent chromium, vanadium and other toxins.

Duke asserts that DEQ’s own studies had rated the remaining nine coal ash basins as low risk and that capping them in place is safe and among the most cost-effective remedies.

Brown, who lives next to the Allen Steam Station plant in Belmont, said a study made public in March by the Environmental Integrity Project shows that the Allen site is the second-most contaminated in the country.

“This is just the Duke way, it’s how they do things,” Brown said. “I don’t understand why they keep fighting this. Don’t they want to be a good neighbor?”

The six plant sites ordered by the DEQ to be excavated are the Allen plant at Lake Wylie, Belews Creek in Stokes County, Cliffside/Rogers in Mooresboro, Mayo and Roxboro in Person County, and Marshall at Lake Norman.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com

One reply on “Duke Energy’s decision to appeal coal ash excavation order rankles neighbors, environmentalists”

  1. What’s most unsettling about this entire sad saga is that it took an environmental catastrophe and regulatory mandate to compel Duke Energy to do anything.

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