Major victory for environment as Duke Energy ordered to clean up toxic coal ash
North Carolina has ordered one of the largest utility companies in the United States to excavate coal ash from all remaining sites in the state, in a major victory for environmental advocates and vulnerable communities disproportionately at risk from pollution and contaminated water.
Duke Energy, which is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, must take dramatic steps to reduce the risk posed by the toxic chemicals produced after coal is burned. Coal ash has long threatened drinking water in the state and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced Monday that the state is prepared to take action.
The coal ash pits at Duke’s six remaining coal-burning plants must now be excavated. This means the ash — which has been mixed with water and stored in open, unlined ponds — must be moved elsewhere to a location where they do not threaten the environment and the public.
Duke had previously asked to be able to cover the coal ash sites with a waterproof cap, also known as a “cap in place” approach. But North Carolina is demanding that the utility remove the toxins from the six sites.
“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals [from Duke], and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, nodding to the climate and environmental policies put forward by Gov. Roy Cooper (D). “Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper administration.”
The utility is now required to submit final excavation and closure plans to the state by August 1. By December 1, the utility must also submit plans on how it will address groundwater contamination at all six plants. The sites named Monday are in addition to eight plants that Duke has either already excavated or agreed to excavate, according to NC Policy Watch.
For years, communities have begged the state to address Duke’s coal ash problems. Leaking unlined coal ash pits are perilously close to water sources and contain chemicals like mercury and arsenic. In 2014, a leak from a Duke site spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, coating some 70 miles of the water body with toxic chemicals.
During Hurricane Florence last fall, floodwaters overwhelmed multiple Duke coal ash pits, forcing the company to admit that the chemicals might have entered the Cape Fear River. That river supplies drinking water to the city of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Responding to the state’s decision, Duke stated that the utility will review the decision “and will continue to support solutions that protect our customers and the environment.” The company has argued the process could cost billions of dollars at the expense of ratepayers, in addition to taking decades to complete. It is unclear what the actual impact on ratepayers might be.
Environmental groups welcomed Monday’s news with open arms. “Thank you to Gov. Cooper and Sec. Regan for listening to the communities most impacted by Duke Energy’s poor management of coal ash,” Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, said in a statement. “Excavating ash into less vulnerable spaces will protect North Carolina rivers and hopefully bring some peace to the families who have spent years fighting for their right to clean water.”
Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), similarly hailed the announcement as “one of the most important steps in the state’s history” toward addressing pollution and water protection.
“When the coal ash from all of these sites is finally removed, North Carolina’s rivers will be cleaner, North Carolina’s drinking water will be safer, and North Carolina’s communities will be more secure,” Holleman said in a statement. “We will no longer have to hold our breath every time a storm, a flood, or a hurricane hits a community with unlined coal ash pits sitting on the banks of waterways.”
North Carolina joins a growing regional trend, as both South Carolina and Virginia have pushed forward with their own efforts to force coal ash cleanup. According to a national assessment of coal plants published in March by the environmental legal group Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, coal ash contaminates groundwater at 91% of U.S. coal plants. The Southeast and Midwest are among the most impacted regions.
North Carolina’s actions also come as the Trump administration continues its efforts to gut coal ash regulations. Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed coal ash impoundments at risk of leaks to continue operating well beyond April 2019, when they were set to close.
Moreover, in March 2018, the EPA proposed further modifications to the 2015 Obama-era Coal Ash Rule, which is designed to protect human health and the environment by placing more strident restrictions on coal ash. State-run coal ash permit programs would be allowed to waive groundwater monitoring requirements under the new rule.
The rollback has been tied up in litigation since last fall.