At the Riverbend coal plant near Charlotte, a front end loader shovels a load of coal ash and drops it into the bed of a truck, which will haul the ash to a landfill in Georgia. Riverbend is one of four coal plants where Duke and state lawmakers committed to removing all the ash from ponds where it’s stored. Heavy metals, like arsenic, can seep from the ash into groundwater.
Duke has now proposed a similar clean-up at four other North Carolina plants, mostly in the eastern part of the state. If accepted by state regulators, it would mean removal of at least 30 percent of the company’s ash in the state. Most of it, would go to Chatham and Lee Counties, where it would fill-in old clay mines.
“We wanted to make sure that we protected that ash and moved it out of those facilities, because they really weren’t suitable for long-term disposal,” says Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert.
The company long favored simply draining the water and covering the ash where it lies. Culbert says studies after the Dan River spill showed the ponds need engineering work, so the company has determined it makes more sense to just excavate.
Two of the plants—the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro and the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure—were also subjects of a federal lawsuit to which Duke pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $100 million settlement.
Duke has also faced pressure and legal challenges from environmental groups to excavate all of its ponds.
“The science is changing, the awareness is changing, the danger is becoming much more apparent,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s forcing Duke to recognize that it does not want to own a bunch of leaking, unlined coal ash storage sites.”
The announcement does not mean Duke will favor removing all of its ash from their ponds. Culbert says the remaining ash ponds, at seven plants, passed their engineering tests. The company could recommend leaving the ash in place. Culbert says it will depend on the results of future water tests.
Duke has now announced it will remove coal ash from storage ponds at the following coal plants:
- Riverbend in Gaston County (required by state law)
- Sutton near Wilmington (required by state law)
- Dan River in Eden (required by state law)
- Asheville (required by state law)
- Cape Fear in Moncure (proposed)
- H.F. Lee in Goldsboro (proposed)
- Weatherspoon in Lumberton (proposed)
- Cliffside in Cleveland County (proposed excavating one of the three coal ash ponds)