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Duke Says It Can't Hit Coal Ash Deadlines, Needs Law Changed

Lawmakers are debatinga billthat would give Duke Energy more time and flexibility in cleaning up coal ash at its North Carolina plants. A Duke official said Thursday that Duke needs the change because it can't hit state deadlines for removing the ash at most of its plants.

That news came as Duke officials led reporters on a tour of Marshall Steam Station, at the north end of Lake Norman in Catawba County.

Thirty million tons of coal ash are here spread over several hundred acres  -- an area so wide the ash-covered roads have names, like Ash Haul Road and Structural Fill Road.  

Duke wants to leave all the ash where it is. But state regulators last week ruled the ash must be dug up moved to new lined landfills by 2024 … That’s a deadline Duke will never meet, says Brian Weisker, the man in charge of all Duke's coal plants.

“For this amount of material, it's gonna take ... an estimate is two decades with 800,000 trucks to implement,” Weisker said.

We asked: “So it's not possible to hit the deadline in the law?”

“Correct,” Weisker said.

That, in a nutshell, is why Duke is pushing lawmakers and regulators for more time and flexibility in dealing with coal ash - the byproduct of decades of burning coal to generate electricity.

Marshall opened in 1965 and has been accumulating ash ever since. It's one of Duke's largest coal ash sites - a big chunk of the 110 million tons total Duke has statewide.

Duke faces similar challenges in cleaning up all its other basins, Weisker says.

“All the remaining ones, based on the volume of material in those facilities, and the duration, yes, all of those are going to have a similar challenge,” he said.

Coal ash has its problems, including toxic heavy metals, like selenium and hexavalent chromium. If those get into the water table, as they have in many places, they can contaminate wells and waterways. And there's also the risk of another major spill, like at Duke’s Dan River plant in 2014.

Environmentalists and plant neighbors want the coal ash removed entirely.

Weisker says Duke's plans for leaving the ash in place are sound.

“Our science, our analysis shows that by capping these in place, we can close these basins in a much quicker time frame and close them in an environmentally safe manner, and at a lower cost than what it would cost to send all these trucks off site,” he said.

The House has already passed a bill that would give Duke a chance to keep the ash in place. Senate leaders put off a vote Thursday, until details can be worked out on a requirement that Duke provide permanent, safe water supplies to plant neighbors concerned about their well water.

Senate leaders  say they expect to pass the bill next week.  

But Gov. Pat McCrory says he'll veto it. He doesn't like another provision in the bill, which would revive the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission. That's an independent body to review cleanup plans. McCrory disbanded the original commission after it was ruled unconstitutional. McCrory says the revised version of the commission is still unconstitutional. And, he says it's not needed.  

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.