Two weeks ago, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory released a plan, billed as a solution for the coal ash ponds leaking polluted water into rivers and lakes around North Carolina. But environmental groups are crying foul—because the governor’s proposal resembles a previous, widely-criticized agreement between the administration and Duke Energy, which was thrown out after a coal ash pond collapsed into the Dan River in February.
Environmental groups feel like this latest plan is more of the same. And the same is state regulators allowing ash to sit in ponds on the banks of North Carolina waterways.
“I’m not sure there’s been any movement,” says Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “I feel like at times they’ve tried to create the appearance that they’re going to do something. But I don’t get the sense that they’re serious about getting these ash ponds cleaned up.”
Gaskins and other coal ash critics have accused regulators of inaction for years, including last year when the state sued Duke Energy—because that also blocked planned lawsuits from environmental groups. They complained again when the two parties agreed to a settlement, requiring years of study before any action and less than $100,000 in fines. And they complained again in February after at least 30,000 tons of the waste spilled into the Dan River. State environmental spokesman Drew Elliot disagrees with the complaints.
“The Dan River spill changed everything for everybody, and while we’re taking a measured approach and always want to take a scientific approach, we realized we needed to not wait and see what the next problem was going to be,” says Elliot.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) postponed and then scrapped the settlement, and this month, Governor Pat McCrory unveiled a new plan. It calls for removing ash from four plants, including Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake. It would require more inspections and tighter regulation of ash storage. But Rick Gaskins says it is basically the same settlement in a different skin.
“I feel like really they just keep finding ways to go back to what they were doing originally, which is this sweetheart deal with Duke,” says Gaskins.”
Gaskins points out Duke had already agreed to remove ash from the four sites in the governor’s plan. Otherwise, the plan again requires more than a year’s study of the leaks. And it does not set a timeline or require removal of the ash from other ponds. Environmental groups say those steps are necessary both to stop the leaks and to rule out another Dan River. DENR secretary John Skvarla counters that is a simplistic solution to a complex problem.
“There is no way that one size fits all,” Skvarla says. “It’s a wonderful soundbite to say, ‘Dig ‘em up, put em in lined landfills, and that’s the end of it.’ I wish the world were that simple that 33 ponds and 106 million tons of coal ash...”
Skvarla says removal may not be the best option financially or environmentally at any given pond, and more study is necessary. Here state regulators and Duke are once again aligned.
“We must really rely on science and the right solutions for each site,” says Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert.
There are a range of options in the proposal, from full removal, to leaving the ash where it is, draining the water, and covering it with a liner. Duke estimates that option is cheapest at about $2.5 billion for all ponds, compared to $10 billion for full removal. Rick Gaskins thinks the utility is inflating its estimate.
“The number that they’ve thrown out as the cost of cleaning up the ash ponds is a scare tactic,” he says.
The Southern Environmental Law Center points out that in a similar situation in South Carolina, utility Santee Cooper overestimated the costs of removing its ash, projecting over $100 million to remove about 10 percent. After agreeing to removal, the current cost estimate is far lower—$250 million total. But in North Carolina, the governor’s plan is gaining traction with lawmakers.
“I think there’s potentially more damage to having to dig up everything,” says Representative Chuck McGrady of Henderson County. “So, we’re going to have to deal with this on a case-by-case basis.”
McGrady is writing coal ash legislation for Republican leadership. The words may differ, but he says the content is consistent with the governor’s proposal. He expects it to pass when lawmakers meet later this spring.