Duke Energy has removed about 13 million tons of coal ash at five plants in North Carolina as it complies with federal and state cleanup requirements. But ten times that amount remains in the ground across the state, and not all that will be removed.
Three years after coal ash spilled into the river at the Dan River plant in Eden, cleanups are underway there and at four more Duke plants. So far, about 1.4 million tons of ash have been removed at the Dan River site, along with millions more at plants in Asheville, Wilmington, Gaston, and Cleveland and Rutherford counties.
"Those are sites where science really drove the recommendation to excavate these facilities and then that was also part of the state requirements," says Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert.
Culbert says as of Sept. 30, nearly 13 million tons of material have been dug up at the five plants and moved to new lined landfills. In Asheville, some was used as fill for a new airport runway.
But about 140 million tons of coal ash remain at Duke's 14 current and former coal-fired power plants. Duke wants to install waterproof covers and leave ash in place at six of those plants - something environmentalists don't like.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has successfully sued to require excavation at many of Duke's North Carolina plants. Lawyer Frank Holleman wants the rest to be removed, too.
"We would like to see the ash moved to safe, dry lined storage, not in water and not sitting in our drinking water and groundwater supply," Holleman says.
He says that's what Duke is doing at two plants in South Carolina.
But Culbert says removal would be a monumental task at Duke's largest coal ash sites, like the Marshall plant on Lake Norman, which has 31 million tons, and Allen on Lake Wylie, with 19 million tons.
"Those are some of the largest facilities we have in the state and that would take literally at least 20 to 25 years to excavate and move all that material to another facility," Culbert says.
And a million and a half truck trips, with noise, traffic and emissions. She says scientific studies show Duke can safely leave ash in place at those and other plants.
And there's still the question of how to pay for it. Duke says coal ash cleanups are part of the cost of generating electricity, and it wants state regulators to approve rate increases, in part, to pay for cleanups. Consumer advocates are fighting the request, saying the company and its investors should foot the bill.
See a list of Duke Energy's coal ash basin closure plans, Duke-Energy.com
Duke Energy "Safe Basin Closure" information