Duke Energy has agreed to remove about 5 million tons of coal ash in three massive dumps from the Buck Steam Station near Salisbury, and recycle it for use in concrete. The agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed two years ago against Duke by the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of environmental groups.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott represents one of those groups, and says the deal guarantees Duke won't leave coal ash where it is, in unlined pits near the river.
"The legislature was going to let sites like Buck be downgraded, and the ash be left in the ground, in exchange for Duke running water to residents. And we didn't think that was a necessary compromise. We thought you could have both," Scott said.
Duke denies its coal ash dumps have polluted nearby wells, but it has been providing bottled water to plant neighbors. It's also working on bringing public water lines to the area, which is required by the state's coal ash management law.
The law also requires Duke to construct three coal ash recycling centers around the state, and to recycle at least 900,000 tons of coal ash annually. Buck is the first to be announced. Others could be announced in the coming months.
Spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the settlement makes business sense for Duke, and permanently removes the ash.
"We're doing it to comply with North Carolina's very strong coal ash policy, which really encourages more recycling of coal ash. It's the only way to make it go away, and avoid permanent storage," Sheehan said.
Sheehan said it could take Duke several months to obtain state permits for the recycling facility, and another two years to build.
Sheehan said Duke is still bound by a 2029 deadline under state law to close the Buck site. The settlement gives Duke longer - until 2035 - in case it can't recycle all the ash. It would have to request an extension of the state deadline, she said.
After the Buck agreement, Duke now is required to excavate coal ash at 8 of its 14 current or former coal plants in North Carolina. Lawsuits to require removal at other sites are still in court.
Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, applauded the Buck deal and said the group hopes more are on the way.
“This settlement is the latest in a long line of agreements we’ve obtained from utilities to abandon dangerous, unlined storage of coal ash for safe, dry lined storage or recycling for concrete,” Holleman said in a statement.