BELMONT, N.C. - The country's largest electric company is being ordered to excavate coal ash from all of its North Carolina power plant sites, slashing the risk of toxic chemicals leaking into water supplies but potentially adding billions of dollars to power bills.
North Carolina's environmental agency said Monday it has decided Duke Energy Corp. must remove the residue left after decades of burning coal from six remaining sites.
"Arsenic, selenium, boron. hexavalant chromium -- These are all chemicals found in groundwater at these plants,” Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones said. They're already there. The groundwater is already polluted and these things don't go away."
The Department of Environmental Quality listed six sites, including the Allen Steam Station in Belmont, and Marshall on the shores of Lake Norman.
"Not only is there current contamination beyond that boundary, but it’s expected to go beyond that," said Emilee Syrewicze, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.
DEQ officials said at the Marshall plant, the contaminated groundwater plume had extended beyond the compliance boundary along the northern and eastern edge on the shore of Lake Norman.
"Really surprised when this came out,” Belmont resident Larry Mathis said. “We fought really hard and spoke up at the meetings about the issue of the coal ash.”
The company had wanted to cover some storage pits with a waterproof cap, saying that would prevent rain from passing through the pits and carrying chemicals like mercury and arsenic through the unlined bottoms.
"We know that unlined coal ash ponds do leak," resident Michael Lindsey said.
Despite the results, Duke Energy has said surface water is protected from its operations and water quality is within strict standards designed to protect the public.
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- Duke customers worried about possible rate hike: 'We're not doormats'
- Duke Energy wants money back for bottled water supplied to residents
- Duke Energy makes progress on coal ash cleanup
- Belmont residents still frustrated with drinking water situation
- Residents near coal ash ponds refuse money for transition to city water
- People with water contaminated by coal ash reach agreement with Duke Energy
"Right now, that coal ash pond in my neighborhood is on an important body of water that feeds drinking water to 2 million residents," Lindsey said.
Cleanup became a priority after a 2014 leak from a Duke Energy site left coal ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
According to a DEQ release, after conducting a rigorous scientific review of Duke Energy’s proposals for Allen, Belews, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro facilities, and conducting public listening sessions in impacted communities, the department has determined excavation of all six sites is the only closure option that meets the requirements of Coal Ash Management Act to best protect public health.
The state is ordering Duke Energy to move the ash into lined landfills.
“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan. “Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper Administration.”
Duke Energy must submit final excavation closure plans to DEQ by August 1, 2019. In those plans, Duke must propose where excavated coal ash will reside and estimate how long that process will take.
- Allen Active Ash Basin
- Allen Retired Ash Basin
- Belews Creek
- Active Ash Basin
- Unit 5 Ash Basin
- Roxboro East Ash Basin
- Roxboro West Ash Basin
By August 1, 2019 Duke Energy is required to submit final closure plans consistent with the detailed requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act and based on the election made by DEQ on April 1, 2019 to excavate all remaining sites.
Gov. Roy Cooper released the following statement on the DEQ order to excavate and close all remaining coal ash ponds:
"This is a strong order that follows the science and prioritizes clean water and public health. We’ve seen the damage this pollution can do including the families who had to live for years on bottled water until we were able to get them connected to permanent water solutions. Now the cleanup of remaining coal ash needs to move ahead efficiently and effectively."
The DEQ is asking Duke Energy to consider recycling some of the coal ash.
Duke Energy says it is considering about 180 applications for recycling coal ash, including universities and private investors.
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