N.C. Officials Order Duke Energy to Excavate Coal Ash Ponds

North Carolina officials have ordered Duke Energy to excavate all its coal ash storage ponds in the state, saying the utility’s current plan for its coal ash sites does not sufficiently protect groundwater. The directive issued April 1 comes after regulators in other states, including Virginia, issued similar rulings regarding coal ash disposal in those states.

Duke, like other U.S. utilities that have operated coal-fired power plants, is spending billions of dollars to clean up its coal ash storage sites. Managing coal ash, primarily the handling and disposal of coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is a major issue for generators. CCRs are the byproducts produced from the combustion of coal or the control of combustion emissions, including fly ash, bottom ash, and other materials that could contain mercury, arsenic, and other toxins.

Eight of Duke Energy’s 14 disposal sites in North Carolina have been scheduled for full excavation and closure. The order Monday from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says the six remaining power plant sites, including a total of 11 ash ponds, must be completely excavated and closed after what the DEQ said was “rigorous scientific review” by the agency, along with comments from neighboring communities. The DEQ in its order said excavation is “the only way to protect public health and the environment.”

Duke Energy has until August 1 to decide on a plan to comply with the DEQ order.

Michael Regan, the DEQ secretary, in a statement said, “The science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment.”

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has often discussed coal ash issues with POWER, in a statement said, “When the coal ash from all of these sites is finally removed, North Carolina’s rivers will be cleaner, North Carolina’s drinking water will be safer, and North Carolina’s communities will be more secure. We will no longer have to hold our breath every time a storm, a flood, or a hurricane hits a community with unlined coal ash pits sitting on the banks of waterways.”

Massive Spill Spurred Federal Action

U.S. utilities have been under scrutiny for their coal ash disposal efforts for years, particularly after a massive spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) site in Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008. The spill brought calls for stronger government regulation of CCRs, though it took more than six years for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a final CCR rule, establishing technical requirements for CCR landfills and surface impoundments under subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste.

Utilities have excavated millions of tons of coal ash and removed it from sites near waterways and other environmentally sensitive areas in recent years. Duke Energy has said it has excavated about 22 million tons of ash since it began its basin closure program, including moving more than 5 million tons in 2018.

Duke Energy in a statement Monday said, “We are making strong progress to permanently close every ash basin in North Carolina in ways that fully protect people and the environment, while keeping costs down as much as possible for our customers.

“With respect to the final six sites—which NCDEQ has ruled are low-risk—science and engineering support a variety of closure methods including capping in place and hybrid cap-in-place as appropriate solutions that all protect public health and the environment. These closure options are also consistent with how hundreds of other basins around the country are expected to be closed.”

Duke Energy said, “Excavation at some sites will take decades, stretching well beyond the current state and federal deadlines. Based on current estimates and closure timeframes, excavating these basins will add approximately $4 billion to $5 billion to the current estimate of $5.6 billion for the Carolinas.”

Legislation Followed Dan River Spill

North Carolina lawmakers passed the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) after a spill of more than 39,000 tons of coal ash from Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in 2014. The CAMA was amended in 2016 and directed the DEQ to examine the six Duke Energy disposal sites not slated for excavation. Monday’s order for complete excavation in effect says the agency does not think Duke Energy’s cap-in-place closure plan is sufficient to protect groundwater.

The CAMA law outlines three main closure options for coal ash sites: cap-in-place, excavation and disposal into a lined landfill, or closure that complies with the federal CCR law, which mandates monitoring of the disposal site and the distance the bottom of the basin should be from aquifers. The federal rule does not mandate a pit must be lined.

The cap-in-place method has been challenged by regulators and environmentalists because it does not require the bottom of a disposal basin to be lined. Studies in several states have shown unlined basins are leaching toxic pollutants.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on March 20 signed legislation that requires safe disposal of more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash from unlined ponds in Virginia. The law requires the closure and removal of coal ash within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to lined landfills on site, with at least 25% recycled.

Duke Energy’s compliance filings under the federal rule in November 2018 showed that 24 of its 26 coal ash ponds were in violation of CCR rules governing disposal. The ponds at the utility’s Allen plant in Gaston County, which environmental groups including Earthjustice in March said is the nation’s second-worst when it comes to coal ash pollution, were found to be leaking cobalt more than 500 times above federal safety levels into nearby groundwater, along with other pollutants including lithium, selenium, and arsenic.

The study from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project noted the only two coal ash ponds not in violation of the CCR rule had been fully excavated.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).