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

After years of debate over Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash ponds in North Carolina, an settlement agreement announced Thursday is expected to result in their permanent removal.

A group of environmental and civil rights groups that had been litigating for coal ash removal and were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center reached a settlement agreement earlier this week with Duke and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Duke agreed to remove some 80 million tons of coal ash from unlined ponds at six sites in western and central North Carolina, placing the waste material in lined storage pits.

It’s expected to be the largest coal ash excavation project in the country. The company will have until 2027 to complete the move at most sites and until 2039 at the largest sites.

According to DEQ, the Duke sites included are the Allen Steam Station in Gaston County, Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County, Cliffside Steam Station and Rogers Energy Complex in Cleveland County, Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County, Mayo Steam Station in Person County and Roxboro Power Station in Person County.

Duke has already begun coal ash removal at eight additional North Carolina sites but until now had resisted ash excavation as the best option for closure of the remaining sites, despite pressure from state regulators and the courts.

Coal ash is a residual byproduct of the burning of pulverized coal at power plants and contains many substances known to be toxic. Whether those substances have been getting into the surrounding environment, especially the water and air, and whether they have been causing illnesses in people and animals have been hotly debated issues in recent years in North Carolina and other states.

In statements released by the SELC, the litigants hailed the agreement as a victory that should ensure the safety of the state’s groundwater, which they have said is threatened by seepage or runoff from the unlined storage ponds.

“This agreement is a testament to the communities throughout North Carolina that have worked for years to protect their neighborhoods and clean water from coal ash pollution,” said Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices, one of the litigants working with SELC.

“We are thankful for the settlement and count it a major victory for our air, water and environmental justice in the state of North Carolina,” said the Rev. Gregory Hairston of the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP.   

“This settlement is a fantastic victory for the Catawba and all North Carolinians and a major step toward protecting water quality for current and future generations. This is one of, if not the, largest coal ash cleanups in American history,” said Brandon Jones, Catawba Riverkeeper at the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “We are proud to have been a part of this effort from the beginning.”

Duke Energy, which had previously appealed DEQ’s orders for coal ash removal as unnecessarily costly, hailed the settlement as a substantial cost savings, estimated at $1.5 billion less than compliance with DEQ’s orders would have cost.

“This agreement significantly reduces the cost to close our coal ash basins in the Carolinas for our customers while delivering the same environmental benefits as full excavation,” said Stephen De May, president Duke Energy in North Carolina, in a statement on the company’s website.

“We are fully focused on these important activities and building a clean energy future for the Carolinas.”

Duke has previously indicated that it will ask the state Utilities Commission to authorize a rate increase to customers rather than passing on the cost for cleaning up its sites to shareholders or through cuts to executive pay.

The SELC and its clients began litigation of Duke Energy over coal ash storage in 2012. The settlement represents an end to that long process, with SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman claiming the agreement as a victory.

“This agreement is the culmination of nine years of work by communities across North Carolina and puts in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation,” Holleman said in a statement from the SELC.

“With the agreements and court orders governing eight other coal ash sites, we now have in place a historic cleanup of coal ash lagoons to protect North Carolina’s clean water and families from coal ash pollution. North Carolina’s communities will be safer, and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.”

Talking Thursday afternoon with Carolina Public Press, Holleman said he felt confident that the agreement includes sufficient safeguards to ensure compliance.

The sites are large and clearly visible from the ground or air, he noted. “It’s hard to hide it if you don’t do it,” he said.

The settlement also calls for monitoring and regular reporting on the progress of ash movement. Holleman said the parties also plan to seek a consent decree from the courts to make sure that the agreement is followed. His organization would be ready to go back to court if compliance falls short.

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

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