Duke Energy is expected to execute the country’s largest coal ash cleanup in the next couple decades. A settlement signed Dec. 31, 2019 between Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality decided the utility will excavate nearly 80 million tons of coal ash from unlined ponds and move it to lined landfills.
Frank Taylor, managing editor for Carolina Public Press, guides us through the years-long battle over coal ash. He says both parties are pleased with the outcome: the DEQ and the environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center for getting the coal ash excavated, and Duke Energy for getting a larger time frame within which to complete the project. Avner Vengosh is a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He has studied coal ash and its health impacts for years. He argues the settlement does not go far enough in remedying damage already caused by coal ash contamination. Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan also joins the conversation. Host Frank Stasio talks with Taylor, Vengosh and Sheehan about the settlement and the future of coal ash in North Carolina.
Frank Taylor on the terms of the coal ash settlement:
Duke is going to remove the coal ash from locations that do not already have some type of a lined basin. Some of the locations … are lined, so those were exempted ... and they have time to [excavate the coal ash]: 10 to 15 years to finish, depending on the site. [The relocation of the coal ash] will be mostly on site as I understand it, into basins that will be lined and protected. And this seems to satisfy the concerns of the regulators and the environmental and civil rights litigants who took on this issue.
Paige Sheehan on why Duke Energy believes customers should pay for the excavation:
The way that regulated utilities work [is] we make investments on behalf of our customers and to serve our customers … Then after we have spent that money, we're able to go ask the [North Carolina] Utilities Commission if it's appropriate to put that into rates. And they make a judgment as to whether that expense was prudent and appropriate. And then we go from there. And in this case, Duke is closing coal ash basins in compliance with both state and federal regulations. And historically, those costs have absolutely been included in the rates that our customers pay. It all fits into the bigger picture of what it takes to operate our business. And then it translates down into rates.
Avner Vengosh on his worry that the settlement does not adequately address existing environmental impacts of coal ash, including contaminated water:
There is very strong evidence that all groundwater underlying coal ash pits has been contaminated. … This is really a milestone in the history of North Carolina [that] coal ash in the future will not threaten the environment in terms of the coal ash ponds, but many questions remain. One question is, for example: What's happened to their contaminated groundwater? Underlying those pits, [the contaminated groundwater tables] are still there.
Avner Vengosh on the presence of coal ash in North Carolina outside of the ponds:
We have been focusing on coal ash ponds, but in fact, coal ash is being spread in different parts of North Carolina … Duke Energy provided coal ash to people for different purposes. And we see it in different parts of North Carolina. We see it in horse farms. We see it in structural fields, near schools, and this is a hazardous material that potentially can affect people living next to it.
Frank Taylor on how the DEQ’s role as the enforcer of the settlement could falter with changing politics:
There is a concern that an agency like the DEQ — which is subject to political pressures, depending on how elections go — are they the right third party to be doing this? Maybe some type of independent monitoring is appropriate.