In a Stokes County clearing in the shadow of two smoke stacks, construction vehicles trudge through a layer of what looks like thick gray dirt. It’s actually coal ash, and soon 12 million tons of it will cover the area. 

Excavation and clean-up of this site at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station has officially begun.

Crews have been working for years to turn what used to be a coal basin into a landfill to dispose of decades worth of ash. They’ve already installed a 24-inch-thick liner to prevent leaks. Now they’re working to fill it. 

“You can see out there you see coal ash being dug up, put into the dump trucks driving into the landfill, where it is placed, leveled," says Bill Norton with Duke Energy. "And then the process begins again.”

Norton says the process will continue on like this for the next 11 years. The project was prompted by a settlement with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and environmental advocacy groups after coal ash runoff spilled into the Dan River in 2014. 

“All of it is also surrounded by monitoring wells," Norton says. "So even when we're done, and this will take until the early 2030s to complete, but even when we're done, we'll be monitoring for decades to ensure that the groundwater remains protected.”

By the mid 2030s, the Belews Creek coal power plant itself will be retired as Duke transitions to more sustainable forms of energy generation. Norton says they are in the process of determining what will replace it. 

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