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Big dig: Duke Energy to remove open pit coal ash at area plants

South Boston News / January 06, 2020
In a legal settlement with environmental groups and North Carolina regulators, Duke Energy will dig up nearly 80 million tons of stored coal ash and rebury the wastes in lined landfills — removing the threat of contamination to nearby waterways and groundwater at six coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.

Among the projects covered in the Dec. 31 settlement are the Mayo Plant, located north of Roxboro, N.C. at the Halifax-Person county line, and the Roxboro Plant, near Semora, N.C., a short distance from the Alton area.

The four-unit, 2,422-megawatt Roxboro Plant — one of the largest coal generation facilities in the U.S. — has two open, unlined ash basins lying near the banks of Hyco Lake. Together, the pits contain an estimated 20 million tons of coal ash.

The two-unit, 727-megawatt Mayo plant, visible from the highway between South Boston and Roxboro, N.C., has a single, unlined basin near Mayo Lake. That pit contains roughly 6.6 million tons of ash wastes. Both lakes, Hyco and Mayo, empty into rivers flowing through Halifax County.

In 2014, Duke Energy was thrust into the national spotlight when its ash basin at the decommissioned Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. failed, spilling 39,000 tons of toxic coal residues into the Dan River upstream from Danville, South Boston and Kerr Lake.

The excavation of coal ash at the six Duke plants will be the largest such operation in U.S. history, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which reached the settlement with Duke in concert with community environmental groups.

“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan said in a prepared statement. “We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions as we protect public health, the environment and our natural resources.”

The settlement by Duke comes after the utility sued NCDEQ to permit it to use a less expensive method for containing coal ash at the six plants — sealing the basins with an impermeable cap and leaving the wastes in the ground. At eight other sites in North Carolina, Duke previously had agreed to dig up ash and rebury the wastes in lined landfills to prevent seepage into groundwater and nearby tributaries.

With the settlement in federal and state courts, Duke will close all 31 of its ash basins in North Carolina. With small exceptions, ash wastes will either be trucked to lined landfills — municipal dumps or facilities that Duke will build nearby its power plants — or dug up and recycled for use as building materials.

The deadlines to close the ash basins span a period from 2028 to 2037, and the effort will cost Duke between $5.6 billion to $6.6 billion over the next 20 years. The settlement with NCDEQ allows Duke to save some $1.5 billion in closure costs, company officials say.

“This agreement is centered around a prudent and reasonable plan for basin closure,” said Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton. “At the appropriate time, the company will seek permission from the North Carolina Utilities Commission to put these costs into rates” paid by Duke customers.

Environmental groups which had castigated Duke for allowing coal ash to contaminate groundwater and river systems hailed the settlement as a victory.

“This is the solution we’ve advocated for the last seven years, and it is a huge victory for our environment and for the front line communities most impacted by decades of coal ash pollution,” said Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue, based in western North Carolina.

MountainTrue joined other environmental organizations in suing Duke to force the removal of coal ash at North Carolina sites. The Dec. 31 settlement order signed by Duke and NCDEQ covers the Mayo and Roxboro plants and four others: Belews Creek, Allen, Marshall and Cliffside/Rogers power stations.

“This agreement is the culmination of nine years of work by communities across North Carolina and puts in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which took the lead in bringing legal action against Duke.

“With the agreements and court orders governing eight other coal ash sites, we now have in place a historic cleanup of coal ash lagoons to protect North Carolina’s clean water and families from coal ash pollution. North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades,” said Holleman.

In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Holleman said he anticipates that Duke will build lined landfills at its North Carolina power plants and relocate the waste ash there. “They don’t have to truck it 20 miles,” he told the newspaper.

The Southern Environmental Law Center represented ten groups that took part in the settlement agreement between Duke and NCDEQ, including the Roanoke River Basin Association in North Carolina and Virginia.

The deadline for removing 6,630,000 tons of coal ash at the Mayo Plant near Roxboro is December 31, 2029. However, Duke estimates it can complete the work by Dec. 31, 2028. As part of the excavation process, Duke will remove or permanently close all pipes running underneath the ash basin.

The deadline for removal of some 16,860,00 tons of coal ash from two open pits at the Roxboro Plant, in western Person County near Semora, is Dec. 31, 2036. Duke projects that the excavation will be completed by Dec. 31, 2035.

A small amount of stored coal ash will remain in place at the Roxboro plant, although NCDEQ will require Duke to put additional protections in place to prevent potential release of wastes. Measures include stabilization of slopes, surface water and groundwater monitoring, and any other remedial steps deemed necessary by DEQ.

Holleman told the News & Observer that the quantity of coal ash that will remain in open ground at the plant sites is relatively small. “These are exceptions,” Holloman said. “An overwhelming amount of ash is being moved to lined storage.”

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