Duke Energy Balks at Coal Ash Site Closure Deadline

By Mitch Weiss and Michael Biesecker | June 19, 2014

Duke Energy is expressing concern about proposed legislation requiring the closure of all of its North Carolina coal ash dumps by 2029, a deadline the company says is about half the time it will need.

The bill backed by Republican leaders in the state Senate was presented to a key committee Monday and could move to a floor vote later in the week. The measure would require Duke to remove its 100 million tons of coal ash now stored in 33 unlined pits across the state or seal it in place.

Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said complying with the 15-year deadline would place a significant burden on the $50 billion company.

“We are currently reviewing the proposed legislation in detail, but it’s clear that the bill timeline is much more aggressive than our plan,” Brooks said Monday. “We’ve stated that excavation at one of our largest sites could take up to 30 years.”

Environmentalists characterized the bill as a step forward from an earlier plan backed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked at Duke for 28 years. But they said the new proposal still goes too easy on the nation’s largest electricity company and would potentially allow groundwater contamination from its toxic ash to continue.

Critics of the new legislation pointed to provisions such as one permitting up to 100,000 tons of coal ash, enough to fill more than 50 Olympic sized-swimming pools, to be disposed of in unlined “structural fills” at construction sites following the expiration of a one-year moratorium. The measure would also encourage the use of coal ash as filler under government-funded highway projects.

Coal ash contains numerous toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium, chromium, beryllium, thallium, mercury, cadmium and lead.

“The improvements in the governor’s original proposal bill are outshined by the lack of enforcement mechanisms or safeguards for the public,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the N.C. Sierra Club. “The main priority should be to permanently isolate coal ash from our state’s waters, and this bill lacks the specifics to make that happen.”

The legislation proposed by Senate leader Phil Berger and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca comes four months after a massive spill at a Duke plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

Berger, R-Rockingham, lives near the site of the spill. Apodaca, R-Henderson, has large coal ash pits in his home district near Asheville. They said their legislation would give North Carolina a solid framework for phasing out the creation and disposal of coal ash in the state.

“As a resident of Eden, I have personally experienced the impact and understand the gravity of the recent coal ash spill,” Berger said. “I am pleased the Senate has developed the most aggressive approach to eliminating coal ash in the entire country to protect consumers and mitigate environmental problems.”

As the bill was unveiled to legislators Monday afternoon, word came of more problems with contamination leaking from Duke’s pits. The state environmental agency ordered the company to submit plans for repairing cracked pipes at dams holding back millions of tons of water-logged waste at five plants.

The state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources issued Duke eight notices of deficiency for leaks at the company’s Marshall, Riverbend, Allen, Buck and Cliffside plants. Duke has until July 17 to submit the repair plans.

Agency director Tracy Davis said the leaky pipes pose no imminent danger to the public or they’d have taken immediate action.

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