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Judge: Clean up ash pits

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Duke Energy's coal-fired plants across the North Carolina line from Halifax County: the Mayo Steam Station on U.S. 501 (left) and the Roxboro Steam Station in Semora, N.C. / March 10, 2014
Duke Energy is under renewed pressure from the courts to clean up ash storage pits at its 14 North Carolina coal-fired plants, including the decommissioned Dan River Steam Station and two other currently operating projects upstream from Halifax County.

On Thursday, a Wake County (N.C.) Superior Court judge ruled that Duke must take “immediate action” to stop groundwater contamination at its coal plants around the state. The court further ordered Duke to develop a plan to clean up tainted groundwater, raising hopes among environmental groups the utility may be forced to shut down the ash pits altogether.

“The ruling leaves no doubt: Duke Energy is past due on its obligation to eliminate the sources of groundwater contamination — its unlined coal ash pits — and the state has both the authority and a duty to require action now,” D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

The SELC represented four environmental groups that sued Duke to force a cleanup of the coal wastes.

The order by Superior Judge Paul Ridgeway applies to the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. — scene of a Feb. 2 spill that released an estimated 39,000 tons of ash and millions of gallons of slurry water into the Dan River — as well as two coal-fired plants in operation in nearby Person County: the Mayo Plant on U.S. 501 between South Boston and Roxboro, N.C., and the Roxboro Steam Plant in Semora, N.C.

Both Person County facilities have been identified as sources of groundwater pollution, with toxins seeping out from unlined pits located on site. The Roxboro Steam Plant, a 2,422-megawatt, four-unit generator, is one of the largest coal-fired plants in the U.S.

In response to Judge Ridgeway’s orders, Duke Energy said it would take the ruling into account as it reviews its options for coal ash disposal. The company has said it will close its pits at eight retired plants, including the Dan River Steam Station, either by removing the coal ash and storing it in lined landfills, or by leaving the pits in place and sealing them off from nearby waterways.

The utility has not committed to closing ash pits at its plants currently in operation, including the Mayo and Roxboro power stations. Neither Duke nor the state of North Carolina has said whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling.

The issue of groundwater pollution was in the courts for two years before the Dan River spill, the third-worst disaster of its kind in U.S. history. Environmental groups brought suit against Duke for alleged violations of state groundwater standards, but a North Carolina commission that intervened in the case ruled that Duke did not need to take any immediate actions despite clear indications of contamination.

Instead, North Carolina regulators requested time to review the scope of the problem and to negotiate with Duke to conduct a cleanup. The ruling by the Wake County judge overturns the state’s position, although the Attorney General’s office could appeal.

North Carolina’s treatment of Duke drew criticism from environmental groups at the time and, in the wake of the Dan River spill, has federal prosecutors looking into ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh has convened a grand jury to consider whether DENR granted undue to the favors to Duke, which was the employer of North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, a Republican, for nearly three decades.

“Duke’s toxic legacy in North Carolina needs to end, and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources won’t do its part to protect our water,” Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club said in a statement following the judge’s decision. “Clean water is our right, and if Duke Energy won’t do the right thing even after the Dan River coal ash spill, we’ll keep fighting to hold them accountable.”

While the judge’s order is being called a first step towards forcing the removal of Duke’s ash pits, it upholds the state’s determination that no action is needed on Duke’s part unless groundwater contamination has spread beyond the delineated boundaries of ash ponds.

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