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EPA Changes Rule For How Utilities Handle Coal Ash Wastewater

Coal ash belmont
Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation
The Allen Steam Station is among the Duke Energy sites that could see a change in its disposal of wastewater.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a new rule for how coal-fired power plants can dispose of wastewater contaminated with coal ash, which could change how a number of Duke Energy’s North Carolina plants handle the substance.

The new EPA rule is a revision of a 2015 rule from the Obama Administration EPA. Utilities would now be able to use cheaper technologies to handle their coal ash wastewater -- water used to clean smokestacks -- as well as clear out coal ash that collects in furnaces, known as bottom ash.

The EPA says utilities would save about $140 million with the rule change.

Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke Energy multiple times over its handling of coal ash, says the utility has to decide how it will handle its coal ash wastewater.

"Are they going to protect our waterways in North Carolina, and our drinking water, by adhering to the limits and putting in place and operating the technology to comply with the limits of the 2015 rule?" Holleman asked. "Or are they going to instead seek to take advantage of this rollback?"

A spokesperson for Duke Energy said the utility likely won’t be impacted by the new rule, because it invested more than $1 billion in new technologies to filter wastewater to comply with the stricter 2015 rule.

Meanwhile, Holleman says Duke Energy’s Mayo Plant in Roxboro already uses a closed system that doesn’t create wastewater as it cleans out coal ash. Duke could install that system at its other sites, he said -- including the Marshall and Allen Steam Stations near Charlotte.

Holleman said he expects the new rule to be challenged in court, and says it may not go into effect until after the election.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.