DEQ, Duke Energy, community groups strike deal on largest coal ash cleanup in US
Published January 2, 2020
Settlement requires utility to excavate 80 million tons of ash from remaining impoundments
In an historic agreement, Duke Energy will remove coal ash from unlined pits at its six plants – Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro – which will finally cut off this source of groundwater and surface water contamination near those communities.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality, Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented community groups in litigation against the utility, all announced the details of the settlement today.
“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long. They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan in a prepared statement. “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.”
Under the agreement, Duke will be required to excavate more than 76 million tons of coal ash from open, unlined impoundments; an additional three million tons of non-impoundment coal ash will also be excavated. A small amount of material will remain in previously permitted ash landfills at Marshall and Roxboro, where the ash is within or under the waste boundary. DEQ is requiring additional protections at sections of those impoundments, including stabilization of slopes, surface water and groundwater monitoring, and any necessary remediation.
Otherwise, all ash at the six plants will be deposited in dry, lined landfills onsite or offsite in industrial or municipal landfills. The ash could also be used to manufacture concrete or other industrial processes that are “at least as environmentally protective,” the agreement reads.
The closure and excavation deadlines for the final sites range from 2028 to 2037, although the agreement allows for Duke Energy to ask for variances. However, DEQ must approve those requests.
With the addition of these sites, all of Duke Energy’s impoundments in North Carolina will now be excavated, raising the total amount of ash removed to 126 million tons. SELC previously sued the utility to force it to excavate the ash from eight other North Carolina plants.
“This agreement is the culmination of nine years of work by communities across North Carolina and puts in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the community groups in court seeking coal ash cleanups in North Carolina. “With the agreements and court orders governing eight other coal ash sites, we now have in place a historic cleanup of coal ash lagoons to protect North Carolina’s clean water and families from coal ash pollution. North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.”
Nationwide, coal plants have historically been located near rivers and lakes because utilities need the water for cooling. But over time, contamination from the unlined basins leached – or in the case of the Dan River plant, spilled – into the waterways and drinking water supplies.
Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue, said the settlement will help protect the Broad River from further contamination at the Rogers/Cliffside Energy Complex. “This is the solution we’ve advocated for the last seven years, and it is a huge victory for our environment and for the front line communities most impacted by decades of coal ash pollution.”
Duke Energy says the agreement will save $1.5 billion in closure costs. The utility estimates it will spend $5.6 billion to $6.6 billion over the next 20 years on remediating the sites. Utility customers could eventually pay for the clean up through their monthly bills. “This agreement is centered around a prudent and reasonable plan for basin closure,” said Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton. “At the appropriate time, the company will seek permission from the North Carolina Utilities Commission to put these costs into rates.”
However, these costs will not be rolled into pending rate cases, whose hearings are scheduled to begin this month. “The current rate case includes some costs from work we’ve already completed,” Norton said, “but costs associated with this plan will be discussed in the future.”
The utility said it has spent about $2.4 billion so far on cleanups.
The agreement prevents what would have been a costly legal battle, as the utility already faced several lawsuits from environmental groups over the clean up. In addition, in April 2019 DEQ ordered Duke Energy to excavate the impoundments. The utility appealed the order to the Office of Administrative Hearings, where a judge ruled in favor of DEQ on several initial arguments.
Duke is closing all 31 of its coal ash basins at its 14 plants North Carolina. Basin excavation is complete or nearly so at 10 basins at eight plants: Asheville; Dan River, in Eden; Riverbend, in Mt. Holly; Sutton, in Wilmington; Weatherspoon, in Lumberton; and one basin at the Rogers Energy Complex. That material is being recycled or disposed of in lined landfills.
Material from 12 basins at Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, HF Lee Plant in Goldsboro, and Cape Fear in Moncure will be reprocessed and recycled into construction material.
Community and environmental groups praised the agreement. “Coal ash pollution is an environmental justice issue, and this agreement will bring more justice to the communities around coal ash sites in North Carolina,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman of the NC State Conference of the NAACP.
Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices said: “This agreement is a testament to the communities throughout North Carolina that have worked for years to protect their neighborhoods and clean water from coal ash pollution.”
The public will have an opportunity to comment on the closure plans during a comment period and at public hearings near each of the six sites in February. Under CAMA, DEQ’s final action on the closure plans is due within 120 days of receipt of the complete closure plans. Within 60 days of approval, implementation of the plans must begin.