In an ongoing legal battle over coal ash basin clean-up between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, parts of the energy company’s appeals have been rejected, shifting focus on how the sites will be handled.
On Aug. 2, the judge presiding over the energy company’s appeal of the DEQ’s coal ash closure decisions issued an order in favor of the DEQ. The new ruling reaffirmed the DEQ’s authority to select the proper closure methods for nine of the 31 coal ash basins.The case will now focus on whether excavation is the proper closure method for the basins.
State and federal law points to capping in place and excavating to a lined landfill as the two primary methods to close a coal ash basin. Citing the Coal Ash Management Act, which was designed to close the coal ash basins in a timely fashion, the DEQ ordered Duke Energy to close the remaining nine coal ash basins by excavation in April.
Paige Sheehan, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, argued the state has chosen the most extreme, costly and time-consuming closure method for the lowest-risk basins.
“Why in heaven's name would you want to subject a community to an industrial construction type project of scooping every bit of ash out of an ash basin and moving it to a new location?” Sheehan said. “Why would you want to do that for 35 years when you can get the same environmental outcome, which is you're protecting people and the environment, specifically groundwater, by capping it in a handful of years?”
But Duke Energy faces opposition from communities close to these sites. Environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center represent communities trying to protect the water around the sites.
Nick Torrey, an attorney with the SELC, said Duke Energy has had problems with coal ash, including dam failures and spills like the 2014 Dan River spill. He said these spills highlight the importance of recycling or quickly moving coal ash into lined landfill storage.
Torrey said the Dan River spill sparked new coal ash legislation that would require Duke Energy to submit reports documenting structural problems, contamination and leaks for the past five years on the coal ash sites.
Torrey said the SELC approves of the state’s decision that the remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina be cleaned up, but now the case will shift to how that clean-up should happen.
David Hairston grew up and currently lives in Walnut Cove, a town in Stokes County outside of Winston Salem, in the shadow of Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. He said residents are fighting for future generations.
"Our home was approximately three-and-a-half miles from the steam station,” Hairston said. “It was raining coal ashes on those homes, and the coal ash was eating the paint off our cars and our homes."
Hairston said he got tired of seeing his friends and family live off of bottled water for years, but the truly painful part was losing his loved ones to cancer.
“I put two and two together that the only thing that was common about the classmates that I was losing is that I moved away and went off to school," he said. "And then when I came back to Walnut Cove, I didn’t go directly back to the area that I was born and raised.”
Torrey said the only way to ensure the safety of future generations in the area is by getting to work immediately.
“You have families living around these coal ash sites who have had to be on bottled water for several years now,” Torrey said. “What Duke Energy is saying is that we've created such a big problem that we shouldn’t have to clean it up because it would take too long to clean it up, but that's not the answer. The answer is get started."
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