Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Archive photograph by Micah Wilkins/Carolina Public Press

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

Asheville is one of 4 ‘high-priority’ plants

By Bruce Henderson

North Carolina’s environmental agency asked Duke Energy on Wednesday to submit plans for removing coal ash from four high-priority power plants.

The letters follow on Gov. Pat McCrory’s Aug. 1 executive order on ash after state legislators left Raleigh without approving an ash-disposal bill.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked Duke to submit plans by Nov. 15 for excavating ash at the Asheville, Riverbend, Dan River and Sutton plants. Removal would start within two months of receiving state permits.

Those four plants have been identified as high priorities since Duke submitted its own ash disposal plan in March, after a Feb. 2 ash spill into the Dan River.

MORE: Carolina Public Press’s ongoing special report on Asheville coal ash

On Wednesday, Charlotte city staff proposed a land swap with Duke to dispose of the 4.7 million tons of ash at Riverbend, which sits beside the city’s water supply in Mountain Island Lake. The city has rejected burying the ash under an airfield at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents 10 groups in litigation over Duke’s ash, said DENR still isn’t forcing Duke to clean up ash at its 10 other coal plants in the state.

“It is only asking Duke to do what Duke has already said it will do – prepare plans to clean up the four sites Duke has already said it will clean up,” senior attorney Frank Holleman said.

DENR Deputy Secretary Donald van der Vaart said the lack of legislation leaves the department asking rather than ordering Duke to remove ash.

“We don’t have the authority to get them to dig it up today; no we don’t,” he said.

The department also asked Duke to inspect its 33 ash ponds weekly for signs of deterioration in their dams or piping systems and have independent inspections done once a year. The state already inspects most pond dams once a year.

Citing existing law, DENR ordered Duke to submit by Oct. 14 surveys of private drinking water wells and surface water that could be contaminated by ash from its 14 coal plants. Duke is to also submit assessment plans to determine the sources and extent of groundwater contamination at each plant by Sept. 26.

Duke has reported groundwater monitoring data for several years – finding contamination at all 14 plants – but has focused on areas closest to the ash ponds. The state now wants Duke to extend that analysis farther from the ponds, van der Vaart said.

“We will respond to the state as we advance our comprehensive plan for the management and closure of ash basins in North Carolina,” Duke said in a statement. “We remain committed to fact-based and scientific solutions that protect the environment and groundwater.”

DENR said it will reopen wastewater-discharge permits for three power plants – Allen on Lake Wylie, Marshall on Lake Norman and Buck in Rowan County – to add provisions aimed at stopping illegal leaks. Similar conditions will be added to new permits for the Lee, Weatherspoon, Mayo and Roxboro plants, it said.

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