Jeff Wilhelm / The Charlotte Observer / Landov

Energy co. says removal of coal ash ponds could take 30 years, cost $10B

Environmentalists warn that Duke Energy’s plan to update its coal ash storage does not go far enough

For the first time since Duke Energy’s defunct Eden, N.C., coal plant leaked thousands of gallons of coal ash into the Dan River nearly three months ago, the public is getting a look at how the nation’s largest electric utility company may change its containment of coal ash, a substance environmentalists say is one of the biggest threats to rivers and groundwater across the country.

This week Duke Energy’s North Carolina President Paul Newton gave a detailed presentation to state officials at a public meeting, saying that Duke was committed to reassessing how it manages coal ash at its 33 storage ponds in North Carolina. But Newton warned that any changes to its current management practices would come with a lengthy timeline and a hefty price tag of up to $10 billion.

Coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power plants, is essentially unregulated at the federal level despite containing several compounds that can be harmful to human health if ingested in sufficient quantities. North Carolina has allowed Duke to keep the ash in large, unlined earthen pits, many of which sit next to rivers. Coal ash has leaked into rivers and groundwater several times in the last few years. And environmentalists say even if the ponds don’t leak, they still seep toxic fluids into surrounding land.

Duke’s spill into the Dan River in February — which left 70 miles of the waterway a “toxic soup”, according to Amy Adams of environmental group Appalachian Voices — struck a chord with area residents and environmental activists, who took the opportunity to push North Carolina for tighter regulation.

But it’s unclear how far the state will go to require Duke to change its ways. North Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for its close ties with Duke, and the state’s Environmental Management Commission sided with Duke in a court case earlier this month by appealing a judge’s decision that would have let the commission better regulate coal ash.

But, perhaps sensing a changing regulatory environment — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to issue new coal ash rules late this year — Duke has presented plans to significantly alter how it stores coal ash in the state.

Duke’s current plan, presented on Tuesday, calls for the removal of all the coal ash at three basins, including the one that leaked into the Dan River. At Duke’s 14 basins where coal ash is still deposited regularly, Duke said it would convert to dry ash handling — a method that could reduce the risk of leaks into rivers and groundwater — or retire those units. At the inactive basins, Duke said it would begin the process of drying the ponds so only ash remains.

Duke said its current plan would take a few years to complete and cost upward of $2 billion.

But environmentalists say the plan doesn’t go far enough and want Duke to close its coal ash basins and remove the ash from unlined pits. The company warns that could take three decades and cost up to $10 billion.  

“If you could fill up a 20-ton dump truck every three minutes, run it 12 hours a day, six days a week, you could move 750,000 tons of ash, so at that pace, the Dan River site would take about two years to excavate and move, and that is our smallest site,” Newton said at the presentation.

Some activists believe it could be done more quickly. They point to other states like South Carolina, where utilities are in the process of removing much of the state’s coal ash from unlined pits and using it in innovative ways, like concrete manufacturing. And they say no matter the timeline or cost, the cleanup is long overdue.

“This is in essence a deferred cost ... It’s paying the piper, paying the price of not properly managing the process in the first place,” said Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club’s North Carolina director. “It’s hard to put a price on ending the threat to groundwater and drinking water supplies in North Carolina.”

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