North Carolina regulators say Duke Energy does not have to dig up and move coal ash at seven current and former coal-fired power plants. The state Department of Environmental Quality said Duke has met requirements in the state's coal ash cleanup law to have the sites declared "low risk."
To earn that rating, Duke had to repair dams around coal ash ponds and provide permanent water supplies to plant neighbors whose wells were feared to be contaminated with toxic heavy metals from the coal ash — the residue left after burning coal.
With the "low-risk" classification, Duke now could be allowed to close the coal ash dumps by draining off any water and installing waterproof covers — known as "cap in place."
Duke welcomed the decision.
"The low ranking ensures the most flexibility in identifying safe, customized plans, based on science and engineering, to close each ash basin in ways that continue to protect people and the environment while keeping costs reasonable," spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in an email.
Environmental groups have opposed Duke's plans to leave ash in place at some locations. On Tuesday, before the DEQ announcement, the Southern Environmental Law Center reiterated its concerns, pointing to Duke's own recent engineering assessments showing that the company's coal ash sites don't meet federal requirements.
"Leaving the ash in these unlined pits and putting a cap on top will not stop pollution of groundwater or wetlands," Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the SELC, said in a press release earlier Tuesday. "The only safe, legal coal ash pits are the ones from which the coal ash has been removed."
The DEQ's ruling affects the Allen plant in Belmont, Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman and the Buck Plant in Salisbury, as well as plants in Stokes, Cleveland and Person counties. Duke actually is planning to excavate coal ash dumps at Buck and process some of it for recycling in concrete and other industrial uses.
Duke already has begun excavating coal ash at four of its North Carolina plants — Sutton in Wilmington, Asheville, Dan River in Eden and Riverbend in Gaston County — where it faces a mid-2019 deadline. Work is now finished at Riverbend. Sheehan said the company is "working hard" to meet the deadlines for the rest, though she noted that "Sutton dealt with two big hurricanes and other disruptions."
As of May, Duke had removed 18 million tons of ash, mainly at the four plants. That's just a fraction of the 140 million tons total in North Carolina.
The DEQ ruling could save Duke millions of dollars in cleanup expenses — costs Duke is passing along to customers.
DEQ says it will decide later how Duke must close sites. The agency plans to schedule public information meetings later.