Settlement Reached in Largest U.S. Coal Ash Cleanup

Duke Energy will save about $1.5 billion in coal ash cleanup costs under a settlement between the utility and environmental and other groups announced Jan. 2 by North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The DEQ said Duke Energy will need to excavate about 80 million tons of coal ash currently stored in basins at six of the utility’s power generation sites. The ash will be moved to lined landfills. The DEQ said it will be the largest cleanup of coal ash in U.S. history. The utility will be allowed to leave coal ash in place at some of its locations.

Duke Energy already is in the process of closing all its coal ash basins at plants in several states, including 31 in North Carolina. Utilities across the U.S. are spending billions of dollars cleaning up coal ash stored near power plants nationwide.

Prior settlements and court orders have required cleanup and excavation of coal ash at eight other Duke Energy sites in North Carolina, representing about 46 million tons of coal ash. The latest agreement now puts in place a cleanup plan for all of Duke Energy’s coal ash basins in the state, meaning about 125 million tons of coal ash has been or will be excavated across the state and moved to lined landfills.

Duke Energy officials said the utility now expects to spend between $8 billion and $9 billion cleaning up that coal ash, including $2.4 billion spent in the past year. It said the remaining cleanup costs will occur over the next 15 to 20 years. It said excavation is already complete or nearly complete at 10 basins. The utility also said that material from at least 12 basins “will be reprocessed and recycled into useful construction material.”

The agreement enables Duke Energy to save about $1.5 billion, in part by allowing the utility to leave in place some of the ash that had been buried at coal-fired power plants in Catawba and Person counties. The settlement includes six active and former coal-fired plants in the state, including Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside, Marshall, Mayo, and Roxboro. Environmental and community groups had expressed concern about coal ash disposal at all six sites.

“This agreement significantly reduced 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, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president, in a statement. “We are fully focused on these important activities and building a clean energy future for the Carolinas.”

“North Carolina communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” said Michael Regan, the DEQ secretary, in a statement after announcing the agreement. “They can now be certain that the cleanup of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year.”

Earlier Fines

The decision announced Thursday does not affect the Dan River Steam Station near Eden, site of a coal ash spill in 2014. That facility was demolished in 2017. Duke Energy already has mostly completed earlier agreed-upon landfill disposal of ash that had been submerged for years at that site. The utility in 2016 agreed to pay a $6 million fine in a settlement with the DEQ over that spillage incident.

Duke Energy filed an appeal with the state Office of Administrative Hearings in 2019 after DEQ regulators refused to support the utility’s proposal to use a “cap-in-place” disposal method that would have left some ash in place at its North Carolina power plants under impervious caps.

That led to Thursday’s agreement on disposal of the ash, a pact that also promises to settle separate lawsuits by environmental and community groups that have been moving through both state and federal courts. Those groups include Appalachian Voices, the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, MountainTrue, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse River Foundation/Sound Rivers, the Roanoke River Basin Association, and the N.C. State Conference of the NAACP. The groups were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

“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,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the SELC, in an emailed statement to POWER. “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.”

Duke Energy pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal environmental crimes after an investigation found the company allowed coal ash dumps at five power plants to leak toxic waste into water supplies. The company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution. The utility in 2018 agreed to pay a $156,000 penalty for similar state environmental violations at three other power plants after pollution entered groundwater and the adjoining Catawba and Broad rivers.

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