Science & Environment
10:42 pm
Wed October 9, 2013

State Releases Final Proposed Coal Ash Settlement With Duke

State water regulators and Duke Energy want to wrap up a lawsuit over possible contamination to rivers that feed water supplies for Asheville and Charlotte. The state released a final proposed settlement Tuesday, but environmental groups say it lacks teeth.

The Riverbend Steam Station
The Riverbend Steam Station
Credit Duke Energy

The state sued Duke in March for allowing heavy metals and other contaminants from coal ash to seep unauthorized from storage at two coal plants, the decommissioned Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County, which feeds into the Catawba River, and the Asheville Plant, which feeds into the French Broad River. Yesterday, the state released its final proposal for what Duke will have to do for the settlement—that means both Duke and state regulators are on board.

Environmental groups are not.

They’re just ignoring plain old commonsense,” says Frank Holleman, senior attorney at  the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The settlement sets out a lengthy period of study that could last at least two years before Duke would have to begin cleanup. Holleman says the contamination is well-documented, it doesn’t need more study.

“We know they are storing 2.7 million tons of toxic coal ash in unlined holes in the ground next to Charlotte’s drinking reservoir, separated only by an earthen [dam] that leaks,” Holleman says.

State regulators counter that dealing with groundwater is very complex, and it takes time to develop a plan of action.

“As groundwater flows through underwater fissures and rock types and soil types, it gets very, very complex,” says Division of Water Quality spokeswoman Susan Massengale. “It can be frustrating. That whole process can be very frustrating, and sometimes people run out of patience.”

Environmental groups are skeptical that state regulators are serious about holding Duke accountable for leaks. Both the state and Duke maintain there is no evidence of contamination affecting drinking water. The state did have evidence for two years that unauthorized levels of metal were in the river, but did not act until environmental groups launched their own lawsuit.

Holleman describes the proposed settlement as just another stall tactic.

“This is a classic Four Corners defense,” he says. “Throw the ball from one consultant to another.”

Duke already has plans to close the coal ash basins and could start as early as 2015, possibly before the lawsuit would require action. Even if that happens, Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert says the study efforts will not be a waste.

“The end goal will be to properly close those ash basins, and that work is beginning very shortly to begin to prepare the closure plans,” she says. “So, we will be doing a lot of work in conjunction with this order [the settlement] that we’ll also be able to repurpose as we’re planning for the closure for those ash basins.”

The settlement plan goes before a Durham County judge on Friday.