Duke Energy's Cliffside Steam Station, located in Rutherford County, is pictured here in an archive photo from 2011. Image courtesy of Duke Energy.

Duke Energy must completely remove coal ash from its remaining unlined storage sites in North Carolina, the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered Monday.

While several environmental organizations cheered the state’s action, Duke issued a statement saying that it could not do what the state is asking in time to meet previous deadlines for site closures set by the state and federal governments.

“Excavation at some sites will take decades, stretching well beyond the current state and federal deadlines (for site closure),” Duke’s statement said.

“Based on current estimates and closure time frames, excavating these basins will add approximately $4 billion to $5 billion to the current estimate of $5.6 billion for (coal ash site closure in) the Carolinas. We will carefully review today’s announcement and will continue to support solutions that protect our customers and the environment.”

The state order announced Monday called for Duke to excavate coal ash at its Allen, Bellews, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro facilities, from both active facilities and ones that have previously been “closed” without removing the coal ash.

Citing “rigorous scientific review,” DEQ’s order said the agency has “determined excavation of all six sites is the only closure option that meets the requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act to best protect public health.” It further called for the coal ash to be placed in lined landfills.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. Duke previously stored much of its coal ash in unlined water-filled basins. Environmental groups have called on regulatory agencies to end this practice out of concern that the potentially harmful toxins in coal ash will get into the water table and soil.

In DEQ’s announcement, it noted the same justification for ordering full excavation at each site: “DEQ determined that excavation of coal ash is more environmentally protective than leaving the material in the impoundment.”

Monday’s order requires Duke to submit plans for compliance by Aug. 1. DEQ will also allow Duke to recycle coal ash as part of this plan. Duke announced earlier this year plans to develop a plant in Chatham County to reburn coal ash, preparing it for potential use by the paving and cement industries.

“Beneficiation – or recycling – is an option that can be proposed by Duke Energy in their final closure plan,” DEQ spokesperson Megan Thorpe told Carolina Public Press.

“Regardless, the coal ash must be removed from the ground. We will have more clarity on the specifics of the final closure plans once Duke Energy submits their final excavation plan.”

Reaction to order

Gov. Roy Cooper made it clear Monday that he supports DEQ’s position. “This is a strong order that follows the science and prioritizes clean water and public health,” Cooper said in a statement.

“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.”

Environmental advocacy organizations expressed broad approval of DEQ’s decision.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has represented a coalition of groups asking the courts to force the removal of Duke Energy’s coal ash, including Appalachian Voices, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, MountainTrue, the North Carolina NAACP, Roanoke River Basin Association, the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP and Waterkeeper Alliance.

In a statement Monday, the SELC credited hundreds of residents who attended meetings and spoke out about coal ash.

“For years, North Carolina families have called upon their government and Duke Energy to clean up all the leaking unlined coal ash pits in the state,” the SELC statement said.

“This is a vindication of our years of work on these dangerous sites,” said Larissa Liebmann, a staff attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance.

Environmental groups not involved with the SELC litigation effort also signaled their approval.

“We are pleased with DEQ’s commitment to all coal ash neighbor communities, not just to those with the most resources and loudest voices,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina.

“Now we need to make sure North Carolina ratepayers don’t end up stuck with the cost for the complete excavation of ash at all sites, as has happened in other states.”

Who gets to pay?

During public information sessions leading up to Monday’s decision, Duke Energy has issued statements warning that consumers would be burdened by high costs if the state forced it to remove all its coal ash.

Technically, that call is up to the N.C. Utilities Commission, which would decide how much – or if – the power company should be able to charge customers for cleaning up waste sites that Duke and its predecessor companies created over many decades.

Asked by Carolina Public Press about this issue, SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman called on the Utilities Commission to act carefully, examining the statements that Duke Energy has made.

“Duke Energy has exaggerated its costs,” Holleman said. “In our experience, utilities greatly overstate the costs of excavation when they are fighting it, then understate the considerable costs of capping in place.”

Holleman noted that South Carolina coal ash sites are all being excavated, and utilities have said this will not affect their rates.

He also warned of the costs of keeping coal ash in place, including loss of property values, damage to public health and risks to North Carolina’s drinking water.

Asked whether the cost factor for energy consumers was considered in making the decision, DEQ spokesperson Thorpe identified other issues as too compelling to ignore.

“The Coal Ash Management Act clearly directs DEQ to focus on public health, safety and welfare as well as the environment in weighing closure options,” Thorpe told CPP.

“The science was clear that excavation was the only option.”

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Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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