Duke Energy ordered to clean up its coal ash mess

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Duke Energy coal ash spill at the Dan River. Photo: The Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability

This week, as Sierra Magazine reported, North Carolina environmental regulators ordered Duke Energy to excavate and remove toxic coal ash from unlined storage sites at six power plants. Toxic chemicals concentrated in coal ash have been shown to cause cancer and nerve damage, and to impair brain development. Spills of this toxic substance have occurred too often as was the case with the 2014 spill into the Dan River, as well as last year when flooding from Hurricane Florence caused pits of coal ash to overflow into the surrounding water. The decision, so long as it’s not challenged in court, will ensure that all 31 of the company’s N.C. ash ponds will be drained, with the ash dug up and removed as environmental advocates have long demanded.

So what’s the plan?

  • Duke had previously proposed merely placing caps on the unlined pits, but with this order North Carolina joins South Carolina and Virginia in deeming such “cap-in-place” closures inadequate in light of the high risks of groundwater pollution.
  • This will be a lengthy and expensive process, as the Charlotte Observer reported, excavation will also add $4 billion to $5 billion to the previous cleanup estimates of $5.6 billion for the Carolinas
  • Duke has until August to submit its excavation plans, including where the excavated ash will go and how long the process will take. Duke will have the option of offering other options, such as recycling the ash for use in concrete, in addition to excavating it.

Why This Matters: Coal ash is deadly and we don’t even fully understand the extent of the waterways and groundwater that it’s contaminated. This was made evident in a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project revealed that 91% of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. The public deserves better than this.

Go Deeper: Duke Energy has a long way to go in rebuilding trust with its customers and people living near its power plants. The biggest test of this process will be if the utility commits in earnest to the cleanup process however investment in a green energy future will also be critical. As GTM reported, this week Duke Energy asked regulators to approve a $76 million investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, including a “foundational level” of fast chargers that would allow EV drivers to zip along highways in the Southeast.

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