State Regulators: All Duke Energy Coal Ash Sites Must Be Cleaned Up

State Regulators: All Duke Energy Coal Ash Sites Must Be Cleaned Up

11:19am May 18, 2016

State environmental officials released proposed risk classifications for coal ash storage ponds Wednesday morning. There are changes from the preliminary classifications.

There are now no low-risk sites listed. That's different from a previous list, whereas there were four coal ash basins listed as low-risk in December of 2015.

The classifications will determine how soon Duke Energy’s ash basins will be closed and what method will be used to clean up the sites. 

The proposed classifications include eight mandated as “high priority” under the Coal Ash Management Act and 25 classified by today’s action as "intermediate." 

High-risk ponds must be dug up and closed by 2019, and the same must be done for intermediate ponds by 2024.

In a press release from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, state officials say the main risk factors driving these classifications were dam deficiencies that are currently being repaired, and potential impacts to nearby groundwater.

They're also asking the General Assembly to allow for the reconsideration of these classifications of coal ash sites in 18 months. And that is causing concern from enviromental groups and residents that live near the storage ponds.

"This is a very noncommittal announcement from the agency where there is a law that required them to come up with final determinations," says Pete Harrison, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance. "I don’t have a lot of confidence that these rankings will stand and turn into meaningful cleanup at these coal ash sites."

A massive coal ash spill at a Duke plant in 2014 left a 70-mile stretch of the Dan River coated in toxic sludge and raised concerns about heavy metals in the water. 

Coal ash contains toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead and chromium.

Regulators said in December that elements were leaking from unlined coal ash ponds. That was at 14 Duke power plant sites. Elevated levels of potentially dangerous substances were found in some private wells around the ash basins.

“We were disappointed that DEQ has requested a “do over” on these classifications from the legislature in eighteen months," says Will Scott with the Yadkin Riverkeeper. "That will play into Duke Energy’s hands and give them a chance to use their political influence to downgrade sites like Buck where tens of thousands of gallons of polluted water a day leak from the coal ash ponds into the Yadkin River.”

Vernon Zellers lives near a dump site near the Belews Creek Steam Station. He's one of hundreds of residents in the state that receive bottled water from Duke Energy. “There’s no time frame. Do we have to live with bottled water for the next five or six years or will there be a quicker fix? That’s still up in the air and I would like to know the answer,” says Zellers.

The Department of Environmental Quality says residents’ well water meets federal requirements for safe drinking water.

In a press release, the agency says "Duke Energy has submitted a study that evaluates the feasibility of supplying permanent alternative water to nearby residents. The state environmental department will recommend to the General Assembly that the classifications be re-evaluated after the dam safety repairs are made and the utility provides these permanent alternative water sources to nearby well owners.

Duke Energy says its coal ash pits aren't polluting neighboring wells. The company says, "Given the scope of work, there is significant risk in meeting excavation deadlines by 2024. We will seek to clarify CAMA to help ensure the law is implemented in a way that makes North Carolina a thoughtful leader on this issue."

The proposed classifications will officially take effect in 60 days.

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

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