After last week’s coal ash spill, which poured at least tens of thousands of tons of the toxic byproduct of burnt coal into the Dan River, state regulators want to delay their own settlement with Duke Energy over its storage of ash at coal plants across North Carolina.
The state launched a series of lawsuits against Duke Energy last year for allowing ashy water from ponds at all 14 of its coal plants to seep into groundwater and rivers. The first suit targeted plants along waterways where Charlotte and Asheville get their drinking water, and the two sides quickly agreed to a settlement: Duke would do extensive tests about the leaks and pay about $100,000 in fines. But, after the spill at Dan River last week, the state has asked the judge in the case to postpone consideration.
Instead, the state wants to wait and see what its workers at the Dan River site learn about coal ash, from the spill.
“We think it’s prudent to wait until we have all of our experts involved in this spill response and working closely at this site, to wait and see what kind of knowledge they might have gained about these facilities,” says Drew Elliot, spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Elliot says the agency is unsure what those experts may learn from the Dan River spill, but it could affect the shape of the proposed settlement.
Environmental groups have been critical of the proposed settlement, calling it a slap on the wrist that stalls, instead of fixes the problem, but the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman says this latest move is more stalling.
“DENR has told the judge that they do not know what to do,” says Holleman, “And that they have to—even after years of data and study—go back and engage in yet another study for some indefinite period of time.”
Environmental organizations have been at odds with state officials over coal ash since March of last year, when the state stepped in and announced it was suing, which headed off a separate lawsuit that environmental organizations had planned. The Clean Air Act allows regulators to take action when outside groups threaten to sue, but Holleman does not think that was the state’s intent.
“What we have seen is one step after another by DENR to try to protect Duke and to block the participation of citizens groups and community members who are affected by this pollution,” he says.
Holleman points out that, in South Carolina, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued, resulting in a settlement where utility SCE&G is removing its coal ash from river banks.
Environmental groups also complain that North Carolina regulators overlooked seepages from ash ponds for years, until those groups threatened to sue. Agency spokesman Elliot counters the new McCrory administration acted less than 90 days after taking office.
“We also met with environmental groups as we came into office, and they pointed to coal ash ponds as something we needed to address,” says Elliot.
A judge has let the Southern Environmental Law Center join the North Carolina lawsuit as a second plaintiff, and Elliot says his agency did not object. Now that the state is asking to hold off on the settlement, Holleman says he will push for the judge to continue to decide the case.
A spokesman for Duke Energy says, in light of the Dan River spill, the utility is doing an internal review of how it stores coal ash.