Updated: 6:49 p.m.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has ordered Duke Energy to excavate coal ash from six remaining coal-fired power plants in North Carolina that don't already have closure plans.
The orders were a victory for residents and environmental groups that had opposed Duke's plans to leave ash in place. Duke says the work would nearly double the estimated cost of cleanups.
Duke is already required by law to dig up and move ash to new, lined landfills at eight of its 14 plants in the state. The DEQ rejected Duke's preferred cleanup method of installing new waterproof covers over existing coal ash dumps at the remaining six sites, known as "capping in place."
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State environmental Secretary Michael Regan said the DEQ rejected Duke's preferred plan.
"It would not be protective of public health nor the environment or our natural resources, if we were to leave that coal ash constituent in the ground. The only option that the science led us to was full excavation," Regan said in an interview.
The orders mean Duke will have to dig up ash at Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman and the Allen Plant on Lake Wylie in Gaston County, as well as at plants in Cleveland, Person, and Forsyth counties.
Monday's orders bring North Carolina in line with neighboring South Carolina and Virginia, where regulators, legal decisions and legislation also require excavation.
And they come after years of debate in North Carolina, including contentious public meetings this winter where environmental groups and plant neighbors demanded that coal ash be removed.
At several of those meetings, a show of hands found that nearly all the citizens who attended opposed leaving ash in place. Amy Brown lives near the Allen Plant, and was at a January meeting, where she said it's time for Governor Cooper to live up to a campaign promise to protect the environment.
"I want to know how this department, this administration, this governor will ever be able to justify cleaning up eight and leaving six. You can't, you can't justify that," Brown said.
In the end, DEQ officials ordered Duke to clean up coal ash at all its North Carolina plants the same way - by digging it up and moving it to new lined landfills.
That's what the company did at the Riverbend plant on Mountain Island Lake in Gaston County. It took years and thousands of trainloads to move the ash to an old brick mine in central North Carolina that had been converted to hold coal ash.
Transportation probably won't be a big issue at the six remaining plants. Duke is expected to build new landfills on the plant sites, as it did at the Dan River plant, the site of a major coal ash spill five years ago.
DUKE TO SEEK RATE HIKES
Duke did not make anyone available for a recorded interview. In a statement, the company said if it has to excavate the ash, it would not be able to meet state and federal cleanup deadlines.
DEQ Secretary Regan said the timeline is negotiable.
"We would be open to a discussion to take a look at the amount of work that needs to be done and the deadlines associated in order to implement what we believe to be the best option on the table," Regan said.
Meanwhile, Duke said excavating would be more expensive than leaving ash in place - $4 billion to $5 billion more than it previously estimated. That would put the total cost of coal ash cleanups in the Carolinas at more than $10 billion.
Duke argues that cleaning up coal ash is one of the long-term costs that come with having access to electricity. A spokeswoman said Duke would ask state utilities regulators for permission to pass along the added costs to customers. She wasn't sure how much it would change monthly bills. Regulators have allowed Duke to recover about $175 million annually in cleanup costs so far.
Duke repeated its argument that science and engineering studies "support a variety of closure methods including capping in place and hybrid cap-in-place as appropriate solutions that all protect public health and the environment. These closure options are also consistent with how hundreds of other basins around the country are expected to be closed."
ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS APPLAUD
Environmental groups cheered the decision. Frank Holleman is a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued and beaten Duke in court multiple times over coal ash pollution.
"Governor Cooper's Department of Environmental Quality has determined after studying all the facts and listening to all the communities involved that Duke Energy has to remove all the coal ash from its unlined pits at six remaining sites in the state in order to protect the state's public health and the quality of its clean water," Holleman said.
Duke has until August 1st to submit final cleanup plans. The DEQ will review those and hold additional public meetings. Regan said final approval could come by the end of this year.