The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is ordering Duke Energy to remove coal ash from all of its North Carolina power plant sites, including Belews Creek in Stokes County.

State environmental regulators have been deciding how coal ash would be cleaned up at six remaining Duke Energy sites. The agency gathered public feedback and has now decided that excavation is the only closure option that meets the requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act to “best protect public health.” That means the waste must be disposed of in a lined landfill.

Duke Energy had wanted to cover some storage pits with a waterproof cap, saying that would prevent rain from passing through the pits and carrying chemicals like mercury and arsenic through the unlined bottoms.

Caroline Armijo grew up in Stokes County and has been a strong advocate for removing coal ash in the Belews Creek area.

“This is a great decision and a point to celebrate, but we still have to go through the cleanup process, so there's still a long road ahead of us but it's still a tremendous relief,” she says.

“I'm so excited. This is way overdue and this will be a great asset to the health and the wellbeing to the people in the Belews Creek area and surrounding areas,” says David Hairston of Walnut Cove.

Environmental groups also reacted to DEQ's announcement on Monday.

“This is probably one of the most significant announcements that North Carolina has ever made about cleaning up toxic pollution of North Carolina's rivers and drinking water supplies,” says Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Five years have passed since the Dan River coal ash spill, and we have seen Virginia and South Carolina move toward cleaning up all coal ash in their states – so it is long overdue for Duke Energy to do the same here,” says Brian Buzby, Executive Director with the NC Conservation Network.

Cleanup became a priority after a 2014 leak from a Duke Energy site left coal ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border.

"This is a strong order that follows the science and prioritizes clean water and public health," Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement. "We've seen the damage this pollution can do including the families who had to live for years on bottled water until we were able to get them connected to permanent water solutions. Now the cleanup of remaining coal ash needs to move ahead efficiently and effectively."

Duke Energy says it's reviewing DEQ's decision.

“We are making strong progress to close every ash basin in NC in ways that fully protect people and the environment, while keeping costs down as much as possible for customers,” the company said in a press release.

Duke Energy added, “With respect to the final six sites – which DEQ has ruled low risk – science and engineering support a variety of closure methods including 'capping in place' and 'hybrid capping in place' as appropriate solutions that all protect people and the environment. These closure options are also consistent with how hundreds of other basins around the country are expected to be closed.”

The company says excavation at some sites will take decades, stretching well beyond current state and federal deadlines. It says the process will add an estimated four to five billion dollars in cleanup costs.                                                                                                      

*You can follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news



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