Decade of fighting in NC culminates in largest coal ash cleanup, but results are a decade away


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – What some are calling the largest coal ash cleanup in the country is happening in North Carolina. The state and Duke Energy said they’ve reached an agreement to deal with 80 million tons of toxic coal ash that has been generated over the decades.

The agreement is the culmination of almost a decade of fighting, as well as lawsuits by communities and the state over the shortage and disposal of coal ash. It’s a controversial issue that CBS 17 has been following since the early 2000s.

Coal ash has been sitting in basins for decades. Some of it has spilled into the environment, like in a 2014 incident where a burst drainage pipe allowed for 39 tons of ash to end up in the Dan River.

In other locations, coal ash has polluted the groundwater because it sits in areas that are environmentally unprotected. It has required people to use bottled water or to find alternative drinking water supplies.

The agreement changes what happens to the waste.

“We’ll excavate the coal ash and move it to lined landfills,” said Duke Energy’s Meredith Archie. The plan is to keep the ash close to where it was originally located, but now it’ll be in environmentally safe conditions.

On-site inspectors and timing requirements will be part of the agreement, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan.

The Southern Environmental Law Center represented community groups that had been suing to get the coal ash cleaned up. It said the agreement will eventually make the state’s water safer because the coal ash will be safeguarded in secure locations.

However, the cleanup will take 10 to 15 years as part of a court order.

“This settlement is legally binding,” said Regan. “It will go before a judge and become a consent order — a court order that will hold Duke Energy accountable for excavating 80 million tons of coal ash.”

Duke Energy said because excavation will all happen on-site, the cleanup plan saves it $1.5 billion in costs and it won’t impact ratepayers right now. But down the road, it said to ask state regulators for cost recovery.

The actual deal must be approved by a judge.

Then, before the excavations begin, public comment hearings will be held at each coal ash clean-up site so that local residents can be heard

That will take several months.

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