More than 200 people came to a public meeting in Gaston County Tuesday night to let state environmental officials know how they feel about coal ash at the Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie. Their main message to regulators and Gov. Roy Cooper: they want the ash removed, here and across the state.

At eight of Duke Energy's 14 current and former coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, it's required by law to excavate ash and move it to new lined landfills. But for the remaining six, Duke wants to leave ash in place with new waterproof covers.

Nearly everyone in the gym at Stuart Cramer High School raised their hands and cheered when one citizen asked who favored removal.

That's what Amy Brown wants. She lives near the Allen plant and said it's time for Cooper to live up to a campaign promise to protect the environment.

"I want to know how this department, this administration, this governor will ever be able to justify cleaning up eight and leaving six. You can't, you can't justify that," Brown said.

Her comments were echoed by Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke to require coal ash removal. In an interview, he noted that all coal ash is being excavated in both South Carolina and Virginia, and North Carolina should require it, too.

"We have a chance for Governor Cooper, for the Department of Environmental Quality, for the legislature and for Duke Energy itself to do the right thing, so that North Carolina can have something to celebrate," he said.

State officials have deemed those six remaining sites lower risk. Duke was required to submit a range of cleanup options, from full excavation to capping in place.

Neighbors worry about groundwater contamination. Duke says all the options protect the public health, but capping is far less costly than the $1.2 billion it would cost to remove the ash.  

Connie Miller of Charlotte's Steel Creek area near Lake Wylie called for more independent analysis.

"I would like to reiterate: you don't work for Duke, you work for the people of North Carolina," Miller said.

And she asked why the cap-in-place option was being considered when other states are not using it. DEQ assistant secretary Sheila Holman replied that coal ash cleanups are still a relatively new thing.

"The federal rules came out in 2014. Our state law came out in 2014. So we are … I think all the states are pretty early in this process," Holman said.

Jim Mitchem worked 33 years for Duke Energy and once helped dredge Allen's coal ash pit.

"The Allen plant is the most populated area around any coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina. Why would you not clean that ash up? You know, it has the potential to affect more people," said Mitchem.

This month's meetings about the six sites are just the latest in several rounds of public comment on coal ash cleanups in North Carolina. Amy Brown complained that the state has been gathering comments for years and said it's time to act.

"We have already done this. You're asking for public comment. What happened to the ones that were recorded 2015, 2106, 2017, 2018 and now 2019," she said to cheers and applause. "I am sick and tired of having to show up at meetings."

Tuesday's meeting was the last of six this month as the DEQ reviews various closure options submitted by Duke. Holman said all the options remain on the table, including requiring Duke to excavate some or all of the sites.  

The DEQ will announce decisions on how Duke will have to clean up the six sites by April 1. Duke must submit final plans by August 1, which will go through another round of public hearings.

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