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Duke Energy settlement results in the country’s largest coal ash cleanup

Duke Energy has agreed to clean up nearly 80 million tons of coal ash out of unlined basins in what many state regulators are calling the largest cleanup of its type in U.S. history. 

Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric power holding companies, settled with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the Southern Environmental Law Center on Dec. 31 after months of negotiations. As part of this plan, the utility has committed to excavating its unlined coal ash basins at six sites over the next 10-15 years. At each of these sites, coal ash is currently stored in unlined, leaking pits near bodies of water. 

After previous settlements and court orders asked Duke Energy to perform similar cleanups at eight other sites, the company filed an appeal against the request that they excavate the remaining six, leading to negotiations that lasted until the very end of 2019.

“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, a senior attorney at the SELC, in an SELC release. “North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.”

SELC represents various community groups seeking coal ash cleanups in North Carolina and has taken legal action against the utility in the past.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity, and it’s one of the most prevalent types of “industrial waste” generated in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The country as a whole generated nearly 130 million tons of it in 2014. 

Last April, DEQ ordered Duke Energy to excavate their six remaining unlined coal ash sites in the state. The utility, which was planning to leave the coal ash in place and seal it with a cap, appealed the DEQ’s order 26 days later and eventually sued the state over the order. 

Prior settlements and court orders have required cleanups and excavation of coal ash at the eight other Duke Energy sites in North Carolina. This agreement implements a cleanup plan for all 14 of Duke’s coal ash disposal sites in North Carolina.

Notably, Duke Energy will be passing these costs down to its customers by increasing rates. 

“It all fits into the bigger picture of what it takes to operate our business. And then it translates down into rates,” Spokesperson Paige Sheehan told WUNC’s Frank Stasio. 

North Carolina’s history of coal ash 

This settlement ends a yearlong battle over Duke Energy’s disposal of coal ash in North Carolina. 

Years of litigation and conflict over coal ash policy trace back to 2000, when the EPA first filed a complaint that Duke Energy had modified its coal-fired plants without proper permitting and pollution control.

Tensions flared between the utility and environmentalists after the 2014 Dan River spill when 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from one of its storage sites into the Dan River. The company pleaded guilty to nine different criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $3 million for the cleanup. Duke Energy’s subsidiaries also pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Air Act for inadequate air pollution control in 2015.  

In response to the Dan River spill, North Carolina passed the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014, which among other things required DEQ to evaluate coal ash disposal at each of Duke Energy’s 14 sites. 

Since CAMA’s passage, eight sites have been identified as “high risk” areas and will require a full excavation in order to be deemed safe. The April order from DEQ took care of the remaining six sites, which will now be excavated and closed within the next 10-15 years as outlined in the settlement.

Concerns and controversies over the safety of coal ash 

Although the EPA does not consider coal ash “toxic” or “hazardous” waste––choosing to call it “industrial waste” instead––there is a general consensus within the environmental activism and scientific communities that coal ash is “incredibly dangerous” and harmful to human health.  

“It has been demonstrated in many peer reviews and scientific publications that coal ash contains elevated levels of multiple contaminants,” Avner Vengosh, professor of earth and ocean sciences, told WUNC. “There’s no question in terms of science about the risk of health and environmental risks of coal ash.” 

In an interview with The Chronicle, he explained that there are two main ways humans can become exposed to coal ash. First is through contaminated drinking water, which could contain arsenic, selenium, boron and many toxic chemicals. 

When coal ash disposal sites are not lined, the substance can leach into groundwater, Vengosh said. His lab recently published a paper on a lead isotope that could be used as a tracer for coal ash. 

Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton wrote in an email to The Chronicle that North Carolina’s water supplies have “always been safe from ash basin impacts.” 

However, the Environmental Integrity Project reported in 2019 that for 91% of coal plants, their ash dumps contribute to unsafe levels of at least one coal ash component in downgradient wells. Many of the chemicals, such as lead, arsenic, chromium and lithium, are carcinogenic or neurologically destructive. 

The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources warned North Carolina residents near Duke Energy plants to not drink water from private wells, but rescinded the warning months later.

The second type of exposure is through breathing in particulate matter (PM) found in “fly ash.” A meta-analysis concluded that this PM could cause “respiratory symptoms” in school-aged children as well as “different cancers, cardiovascular diseases and reproductive disorders.”  In addition, PM has serious impacts on terrestrial and water ecosystems where fly ash settles.  

Workers excavating coal ash could risk direct exposure to the substance. Vengosh stated that workers tasked with cleaning up sites should not breathe in coal ash. In the country’s largest coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., 36 workers died of diseases like lung cancer and leukemia. The survivors suffered severe health effects like blisters on skin and trouble breathing without an inhaler. None of the workers were given protective gear. 

Regarding the safety of the workers who will clean up Duke Energy’s sites, Norton wrote that the dust levels will be “monitored and mitigated by water spray trucks and other suppression methods” while personal air monitoring is conducted to ensure exposure is “below [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]’s permissible exposure levels.” 

What can the public expect from Duke Energy moving forward?

According to DEQ, Duke submitted closure plans for the excavations by the New Year's Eve deadline, as required by CAMA and in accordance with the agreement. The public will now have an opportunity to comment on the closure plans at public hearings near each of the six sites in February. 

Under CAMA, DEQ’s final action on the closure plans is due within 120 days of receipt of the complete closure plans. Within 60 days of approval, implementation of the plans must begin. The plans are now available online for the public to view. 

Given the scale of the project, the excavations will take time. Norton says that if all goes according to plan, it’s likely to be completed in 10 to 15 years as outlined in the settlement. 

“The agreement calls for expedited state approval of permits which should keep projects on a rapid timeline,” Norton wrote.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify that the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources rescinded the warning for residents near Duke Energy power plants not to drink from their wells.

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