As Coal Ash Neighbors Press For Removal, DEQ Weighs Cleanup Options

Feb 2, 2019

People who live around a half-dozen of Duke Energy coal ash sites in North Carolina have expressed strong feelings over the past few weeks about how Duke should have to clean up the ash. They want the state to order Duke to remove it.

But Duke wants to cover it in place and says that's just as safe, and a lot less expensive. WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks has been following the debate and talked with Weekend Edition host Nick de la Canal.

Nick de la Canal: David, you've covered a couple public meetings this month on this. What are the issues here?    

David Boraks: Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned for electricity. It contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and selenium that can cause cancer. Plant neighbors worry that coal ash has contaminated their wells. State officials even sent notices to hundreds of homeowners in 2015 warning them about possible pollution. And a 2016 state law required Duke to provide them water filters or connections to public water supplies. All that work is done now, but people are still concerned.

State regulators held a public meeting Tuesday night in Belmont, where I talked to homeowner Jim Mitchem. He's actually a retired Duke Energy employee and says he once helped dredge a coal ash pond at the Allen plant near the house he grew up in, and where his elderly dad still lives. 

"The Allen Plant is the most populated area around any coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina," Mitchem said. "Why would you not clean that ash up? You know, it has the potential to affect more people."

And by cleanup, he means digging up the ash.

de la Canal: That meeting was one of six around the state this month. What were these meetings about?

Boraks: Duke stores coal ash at 14 current or closed coal-fired plants around the state. At eight of those, it's now required by law and court orders to excavate and move the ash to new lined landfills, away from waterways.

At the other six plants, it's not clear yet what will happen. The state Department of Environmental Quality has asked Duke to submit multiple cleanup options for the plants, including Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman and the Allen Plant on Lake Wylie.

Some speakers at these meetings have pointed to North Carolina's neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina, where all coal ash is being dug up. They want North Carolina to do the same.  

de la Canal: When will we know how Duke will have to clean up these sites?

Boraks: The DEQ has until April 1 to decide. The options Duke has presented are excavation, capping in place, as it's called, and — in some cases — a combination of the two.   

Duke argues that all the cleanup options are safe. At both the Allen and Marshall plants, the company says excavation would cost more than a billion dollars — many times the cost of capping in place. Here's Duke spokesman Bill Norton talking about the Allen plant:

"Scientifically speaking, you're achieving the same outcome," Norton said. "Why would you pay six times the costs, just to achieve the same outcome?"   

State utilities regulators so far have allowed Duke to pass most of those costs on to customers.  

de la Canal: So with these six sites, how much more will Duke customers have to pay?

Boraks: It will be a while before we know that. First, the DEQ has to decide on the cleanup methods. Then, Duke would have to figure out exact costs and go back to the utilities commission to request new rate increases.   

de la Canal: Is cost a factor for the DEQ?

Boraks: A lot of people are worried about that. And another issue is deadlines in the state law requiring coal ash cleanups. Duke says it would take several decades to dig up ash at these plants, which would miss the state's 2029 deadline.

But those issues aren't part of the DEQ's review. I talked to assistant environmental secretary Sheila Holman.

"I want to emphasize that the department is nowhere close to making a decision on this," Holman said. "We're very much in the evaluation phase."

Some residents and environmentalists are concerned that the DEQ hasn't seen enough independent analysis. Holman says the DEQ is conducting its own technical review of the cleanup options. And they'll hold another round of public hearings once Duke submits its final closure plans in August.

de la Canal: One last question — so what if Duke misses state deadlines for any of these cleanups?

Boraks: That may not matter. State law allows for extensions and DEQ officials tell me safety and health are the priority as they make cleanup decisions. And Duke already has asked the state for a six-month extension at the Sutton plant in Wilmington.