A view from above the Progress Energy power plant in Skyland shows the magnitude of coal it takes to power the company's 164,000 customers in Western North Carolina. Photo courtesy of SouthWings.

This story originally appeared here and is republished by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer.

DENR may expand proposed court settlement beyond Duke’s Asheville, Charlotte plants

By Bruce Henderson

A view from above the Progress Energy power plant in Skyland shows the magnitude of coal it takes to power the company's 164,000 customers in Western North Carolina. Photo courtesy of SouthWings.
A view from above the Duke Energy power plant in Asheville. Archive photo, courtesy of SouthWings.

Gov. Pat McCrory told Duke Energy on Tuesday that he wants its coal ash ponds statewide moved away from drinking-water sources.

McCrory and environment Secretary John Skvarla wrote Duke CEO Lynn Good that “as a state we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water.”

The governor, a former Duke Energy executive, and other state officials have been under political pressure to crack down on Duke’s ash since a Feb. 2 spill into the Dan River gained national attention.

Protesters gathered outside Duke’s Charlotte headquarters Tuesday chanting “Shame!” as they delivered petitions signed by 9,000 people demanding ash be removed from near waterways.

McCrory’s letter, reported by Raleigh’s WRAL.com, expresses “our primary desire that coal ash ponds be moved away from these essential resources.”

It demands that Duke supply options, costs and other details about its ash ponds to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources by March 15.

A lawyer for environmental advocates who have battled Duke and DENR over ash remained skeptical of McCrory’s commitment.

“I think it’s good the governor is reacting finally and is communicating with the CEO of Duke Energy, but given everything that’s happened, actions speak louder than words,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “He says they’re not going to stand for it anymore, but if you’re not going to stand for it any more, clean up the mess.”

Holleman said McCrory and DENR could go to court to order Duke to clean out the ash ponds. The ponds are scattered at 14 operating and retired power plants statewide.

The environment department, meanwhile, said separately Tuesday that it might force Duke to remove the coal ash from the Dan River power plant that was the scene of the spill.

Permit reconsidered

DENR said Tuesday that it plans to reopen a permit for Duke to drain water from its ash ponds into the Dan River.

Before the plant was retired in 2012, slurries of ash and water were piped into the ponds, where heavy material settled to the bottom. Water from the ponds was drained to the river.

In its notification to Duke Monday, DENR said the permit changes will either end that discharge or include conditions “sufficient to ensure” their elimination. One option, said water-resources director Tom Reeder, is to make Duke move the stored coal ash waste to a lined landfill.

“We will respond to the state and work to determine the most appropriate resolution,” said Duke spokesman Tom Williams. “As we have stated, our company is taking another look at how we manage ash basins.”

A DENR task force created after the spill will consider whether to modify permits at other coal-fired power plants, the department said. Duke has said it too is reviewing its management of ash.

Rates may rise

But Duke is likely to draw a line between cleanup costs of the Dan River spill, which it says customers won’t have to pay for, and the cost of removing ash from its ponds. That could raise rates.

Good, the CEO, told financial analysts last week that Duke expects to recover the costs of meeting upcoming federal rules on ash, and of closing retired ash ponds, through rates charged to customers.

DENR filed lawsuits against Duke last year over ash contamination at all 14 of its active and retired coal-fired power plants. A settlement was proposed for two of those plants – Riverbend west of Charlotte and Duke’s Asheville plant – but was sidelined after the Dan River spill.

In an update last Thursday to the judge hearing that case, DENR’s lawyers said the department might expand the settlement to include additional power plants.

DENR might also recommend the judge consider the original settlement over the two plants. That proposal called for a $99,000 fine of Duke and continued assessments of contamination. Public comments solicited by the state called that settlement too lenient.

The department said it will make a recommendation on the settlement by March 21.

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