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Legal Battle Over Duke Energy Coal Ash Ends But Cleanup Has Years To Go

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David Boraks
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WFAE

Charlotte-based Duke Energy will have to excavate nearly 80 million tons of coal ash from six North Carolina sites — including Allen Steam Station in Belmont — as part of a settlement between the company, the state and several community groups.

The settlement announced Thursday ends almost eight years of court battles over how to protect drinking water and dispose of coal ash. 

Duke will also excavate coal ash from Belews Creek, Cliffside in Mooresboro, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro sites. The coal ash — residue left over from coal being burned to produce electricity — will be moved to lined landfills onsite. 

Coal ash contains heavy metals that can be toxic in high concentrations, WFAE previously reported. 

"It closes the chapter on coal ash and allows us to focus our attention on building a cleaner energy future," said Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan.

For Duke, the settlement saves $1.5 billion and gives the company an additional six years – until 2035 – to finish the work.

Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones, who works for one of the environmental groups that has been opposing Duke in court, also called the settlement a win.

“This settlement is a fantastic victory for the Catawba and all North Carolinians and a major step towards protecting water quality for current and future generations," he said.

According to the state, it's the largest coal-ash cleanup in American history. Including coal-ash removal that's already underway, Duke says it's excavating about 124 million tons of ash in North Carolina. According to Jones, that's enough to fill more than 30,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

State Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan lauded the agreement in a news release.

“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long," he said. "They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year. We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions as we protect public health, the environment and our natural resources.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center represented community groups, including the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.

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Credit ANN DOSS HELMS / WFAE
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WFAE
Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones across the river from Duke Energy's Allen Steam Plant, one of the sites that's part of the coal ash clean-up settlement.

The foundation held a news conference Thursday morning on the Mecklenburg County side of the Catawba River, with the red and white towers of the Allen Steam Plant visible from the Gaston County side. Belmont residents who live near that plant relied on bottled water for about three years because of fears that residue from coal ash was contaminating their wells. They got connected to city water lines about a year ago, Jones says.

Less visually striking was the earthen dam next to the towers. "Behind that," Jones said, "is about 300 acres of coal ash, up to 90 feet deep."

Jones said the site is a reminder of why the settlement matters to people who draw their drinking water from the Catawba River and its three Charlotte-area lakes: Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake. 

"All three lakes are drinking water sources for more than a million North and South Carolina residents, including Charlotte, Rock Hill, Gastonia, Mount Holly and Fort Mill," he said.

In April the state ordered Duke to excavate and safely dispose of the ash at nine basins in North Carolina, including the Marshall Steam Plant on Lake Norman and the Allen Plant on Lake Wylie. The work had to be finished by 2029 – a deadline that Duke’s Sheehan says wasn’t practical.

"Duke had proposed one way to close them and the state had a different idea," Sheehan said. "So we got together with the environmental regulator as well as the environmental community and we came up with a plan that would have us excavate seven basins and partially excavate another two basins."

Those two basins are at the Marshall plant in Catawba County and the Roxboro Plant in Semora. They’re located under newer coal-ash landfills that are lined to prevent seepage.

The state had initially ordered Duke to dig up the old, unlined ash. The new settlement allows Duke to monitor those sites but doesn’t require full excavation.

"That small change in the plan saves $1.5 billion while ensuring that people and the environment are still perfectly protected," Sheehan said.

That could be a hard sell for nearby residents. A public meeting near the Marshall Plant a year ago drew more than 500 people, most of whom were vocal about demanding full excavation. 

At that meeting, Lake Norman resident John Ong said Duke's costs should not be a factor. "Duke Energy is a profit-making machine and can step up and pay for its own mistakes," he said, as others cheered.

The latest estimated cost for all coal-ash removal is between $8 billion and $9 billion, according to Duke, with about $2.4 billion already spent.

Jones, the riverkeeper, said his side supports giving Duke more time and believes the plan that emerged from the settlement is safe. Duke is not making payouts to the groups that opposed the company, he and Sheehan said..

"It’s really just a weight off our shoulders," Jones said. "After seeing the disastrous spill in Kingston and on the Dan River, that could have happened here."

He referred to a 2014 incident in which a broken drain pipe under a coal ash storage pond in northern North Carolina dumped approximately 40,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, WFAE reported at the time.

Jones also praised Duke for agreeing to recycle as much coal ash as possible. Duke has recycling facilities at three of its plants, which can turn the ash into something like sand for use in construction material

"We currently actually import coal ash from India and China to make cement," Jones said.

While the state has agreed to the settlement, the public will get one more chance to weigh in, at public hearings in February, before the arrangement becomes final.