Duke Energy signed a settlement on Dec. 31, 2019 entailing the company cleaning up and relocating approximately 80 million tons of coal ash from six North Carolina sites. The company would be responsible for relocating the coal ash into environmentally friendly, lined landfills by 2035.
On Feb. 5, Judge Paul C. Ridgeway of the Wake County Superior Court filed a consent order incorporating the terms of the settlement to ensure Duke Energy will follow through with the settlement’s conditions.
Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, poses large environmental and human health threats. In the past, coal ash has been stored in holes in the ground, then covered with water. There are only six remaining sites in North Carolina where coal ash is stored in this manner: the Cliffside site bordering Cleveland and Rutherford counties, the G.G. Allen site in Gaston County, the Marshall site in Catawba County, the Belews Creek site in Stokes County and the Roxboro and Mayo sites in Person County.
The Duke Energy coal ash settlement will lead to the largest coal ash cleanup in United States history.
Sharon Martin, deputy secretary for public affairs at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), said the department determined on April 1, 2019 that Duke Energy must excavate its coal ash from the six sites.
The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Duke Energy, but they did not respond to a request for comment.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) represented the communities and environmental groups in litigation of the settlement, and Duke Energy negotiated the consent order, Martin said.
The original deadline for Duke Energy to excavate and relocate the coal ash was 2029. However, Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the SELC, said Duke Energy now has until 2035 for some of the sites to ensure that the excavation and relocation are done in a safe and thorough manner.
“The ash has been dumped into the unlined sites for decades, so it’s understandable it’s going to take some period of time to permit and set up the new landfills and then remove the ash in an orderly, safe way to the new storage,” Holleman said. “So, that’s why the timetables, it was based on the reasonably safe, expeditious time frame under which Duke believed it could remove the ash.”
Holleman said the coal ash won’t just sit at the sites for 15 more years, but rather 2035 is the outer limit of the cutoff date.
David Rogers, southeast deputy regional director for the Beyond Coal Campaign at the Sierra Club, said coal ash poses an environmental threat by contaminating communities’ water supplies when stored in unlined landfills.
“The technology Duke had been using to store it most was: take the coal ash out of the power plant, dig a hole in the ground, put the coal ash in the hole, then put water on it so it doesn’t fly around,” Rogers said. “Which, as you can imagine, has been particularly problematic in leaking into rivers, as most of these pits are right next to rivers.”
Rogers said this is particularly problematic since the communities surrounding the six remaining sites are rural. The communities are reliant on well water, which coal ash as it’s currently stored can easily contaminate, Rogers said. Ingesting coal ash can cause pneumonia, heart attacks and various other respiratory problems.
Holleman said the threat of catastrophic failure, damage done by weather and pollution of rivers and groundwater are the driving factors in why the coal ash must be excavated and moved.
The coal ash problem is the product of a larger environmental issue, one Rogers said he hopes people will be made more aware of considering this settlement.
“We hope that not only do the communities get a sense of certainty and safety in terms of worrying about the impacts of living near coal plants and coal ash pits, but we hope it also helps further the conversation that the most important thing we can do is stop making this problem any larger by just stopping the burning of coal for electricity," Rogers said. "We have better ways to do it.”
Holleman believes the settlement will kick-start other companies and states to fix their coal ash problems.
“I do think what’s happened in North Carolina has influenced what’s happening in the rest of the country, and really sets the industry standard,” Holleman said.
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