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Public Sentiment Prevails in Fight for NC Coal-Ash Cleanup

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality heard from thousands of residents across the state since a major spill at a Duke Energy plant in February 2014 dumped thousands of pounds of coal ash into the Dan River. (Sam Kepple/Appalachian Voices)
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality heard from thousands of residents across the state since a major spill at a Duke Energy plant in February 2014 dumped thousands of pounds of coal ash into the Dan River. (Sam Kepple/Appalachian Voices)
April 3, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. - The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality ruled this week that Duke Energy must excavate its last coal impoundments in the state.

Concerns about coal ash and what Duke does with the sludge left over after coal is burned for fuel have been hot topics for years in the Tar Heel State. Thousands of residents near the coal-ash sites attended public meetings to voice their views about living with piles and ponds of what scientists say contain arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins.

Amy Adams, program manager of the group Appalachian Voices, said the ruling affirms the state's commitment to protecting public health.

"The science clearly pointed to excavation as the only closure plan that would be protective of human health and protective of our communities," she said, "but we've seen in the past that, sometimes, the power of corporate polluters can override the science."

In a written statement, Duke Energy said it is "making strong progress to permanently close every ash basin in North Carolina in ways that fully protect people and the environment, while keeping costs down as much as possible for customers." The company has four months to submit its final plan to the DEQ.

The ruling challenges Duke Energy's original proposal to cap the sites. But since the storage ponds are unlined, and in some cases leaking, DEQ officials decided that digging up and removing the coal ash would be the only option to "best protect public health and the environment."

Drew Ball, state director of Environment North Carolina, called the decision a victory for those who came forward during the public comment period.

"People packed high school gymnasiums, people came out and made their voices heard on this, and it was a resounding, unified voice that we do not want this in our backyard," he said. "The fact that the Cooper administration has taken it to heart and is actually listening to communities is refreshing. It's exciting to see government actually being responsive to the concerns of citizens."

DEQ has said the coal ash must be moved to lined landfills. The facilities involved in the cleanups are Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro.

The DEQ order is online at deq.nc.gov, and the Duke Energy response is at news.duke-energy.com.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - NC