At Long Last, the Coal Ash Resolution

Nearly six years after Dan River spill, N.C. and Duke Energy reach agreement
Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station, on Lake Wylie in Gaston County, is one of six plants from which the company will begin to remove coal ash for safe storage.
Jeff Cravotta/Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation

The State of North Carolina and Duke Energy signed off on it when they did, the last day of 2019, for a hard and practical reason: a deadline. But you can affix symbolic importance, too, to the long-awaited agreement Tuesday to excavate nearly 80 million tons of coal ash from six sites, two in the Charlotte area—the largest coal ash cleanup in U.S. history. The state’s coal ash crisis, thrust into the public consciousness by the coal ash spill into the Dan River in Eden on February 2, 2014, was the biggest environmental story of the decade in North Carolina, and its long and complex road to resolution demonstrated the power of focused, informed activism and the persistence required to use it as the springboard for genuine change.

“I particularly remember a sub-freezing day in January when David Merryman and I paddled down the Wateree River to take samples and document coal ash seepages in overloaded kayaks, praying that our kayaks would not overturn and dump us in the icy water,” former Catawba Riverkeeper Richard Gaskins posted after the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality announced the news Thursday morning. (Gaskins was referring to Merryman, another former Catawba Riverkeeper, in a comment on the Facebook page of yet another former riverkeeper, Sam Perkins; the Catawba’s name changes to the Wateree in South Carolina.) “Other groups probably have similar stories about the team effort required to achieve this result. Thanks to everybody who helped achieve this settlement.”

Duke Energy, at an estimated cost of nearly $9 billion, will move the coal ash to lined landfills over the next 15 years. In a release Thursday, the company called the agreement “a major achievement that puts the coal ash debate to rest in North Carolina.”

It’s taken years for regulators to fully understand the hazards of coal ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal in power plants like Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie and Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman, the two Charlotte-area plants on the list of six. The ash contains toxic metals that can harm the environment and people; the largest and worst coal ash spill in U.S. history, near Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008, released more than one billion gallons of ash slurry, cost more than $1 billion to clean up, and has contributed to higher occurrences of cancer among workers at the site.

Charlotte-based Duke, the nation’s largest utility, has stored coal ash in open, unlined ponds at plant sites for decades. But the Dan River spill, which released 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water, compelled groups like the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and Southern Environmental Law Center to sue Duke and the General Assembly to pass a law that year that required the company to phase out its ash ponds.

Duke had proposed keeping the millions of tons of coal ash at the six sites by draining the ponds and capping the ash to protect it from rainwater and prevent spills. But DEQ ruled in April that excavating the ponds and moving the ash to lined landfills was the only option that met the standards of the law.

The agreement signed this week formalizes the requirement. This year, Duke will begin to remove coal ash from the six sites and enter a court-supervised consent order with DEQ and the community groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, DEQ said in a release Thursday. But the agreement also allows Duke to maintain two covered coal ash basins, one of them at the Marshall station, that the April order had disallowed, saving Duke an estimated $1.5 billion, the company said Thursday. 

“This agreement is a historic cleanup of coal ash pollution in North Carolina, and the Department of Environmental Quality and community groups throughout the state have provided essential leadership in obtaining it,” SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman says in the DEQ release. “The water resources and families of North Carolina will benefit from this statewide coal ash cleanup for years to come.”

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