RALEIGH –– The country’s largest electric company was ordered Monday to excavate coal ash from all of its North Carolina power plant sites, mitigating the risk of toxic chemicals leaking into water supplies but potentially adding billions of dollars to the rates consumers pay.
Duke Energy must remove the residue left after decades of burning coal to produce electricity, North Carolina’s environmental agency said. The company had proposed covering some storage ponds with a waterproof cap, saying that would prevent rain from passing through and carrying chemicals through the unlined bottoms and would provide a quicker and cheaper option.
“It is a surprise based on what we had seen and where I thought they were,” said Donald van der Vaart, former secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, in an interview. “I would expect Duke will scrutinize the decision and maybe bring some sort of legal action. The real questions are, ‘Is it necessary? Does the benefit outweigh the cost?’ And that’s the question that will be scrutinized. As far as I know, this is the largest amount of coal ash that is going to be required to be excavated. So this is going to have implications in other states where they are trying to make this decision.”
Duke Energy said Monday the expanded requirement could double its excavation costs to about $10 billion. It had previously estimated the task would take up to 30 years to complete at all 14 current and former coal-burning plants in the state.
According to van der Vaart, it will be difficult to know how deep to dig to ensure all the contaminants have been removed. “The details are going to be a challenge. I think it’s going to be a very difficult thing to do completely.”
Coal ash contains toxic chemicals like mercury, lead and arsenic. These naturally-occurring chemicals are commonly found in low levels in soil but coal ash contains slightly more concentrated levels than unburned coal.
Monday’s decision affects six coal-burning plants still operating in North Carolina. Ponds at eight other power plants around the state had previously been ordered excavated, with the ash to be stored away from waterways.
“We did a thorough analysis of the six sites and it wasn’t a decision that was made by other reasons than the science,” state Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan said in an interview. “We’re making these decisions so that they are most protective of public health and the environment.”
The move means North Carolina joins Virginia and South Carolina in ordering its major electric utilities to move their coal ash out of unlined storage.
A 2008 spill in Tennessee drew national attention to coal ash storage. Cleanup became a priority in North Carolina after a 2014 leak from a Duke Energy site left coal ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River on the state’s border with Virginia.
Duke Energy pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal environmental crimes after an investigation found the company allowed coal ash ponds at five power plants to leak toxic waste into water supplies. The company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.
Last year, Duke Energy agreed to pay a $156,000 penalty for similar state environmental violations at three other power plants after pollution entered groundwater and the adjoining Catawba and Broad rivers.
The company said it is reviewing the agency’s decision that it must fully excavate its North Carolina sites “and will continue to support solutions that protect our customers and the environment.”
State utilities regulators last year set a precedent in deciding that Duke Energy’s two North Carolina divisions could charge ratepayers the first $778 million portion of cleanup costs.
The Utilities Commission also assessed the company a $70 million mismanagement penalty, finding that Duke Energy’s “irresponsible management” of its ash pits” resulted in cost increases greater than those necessary to adequately maintain and operate its facilities.”
State Attorney General Josh Stein said last year he will try to stop Duke Energy from passing along its cleanup costs to 3.4 million North Carolina power customers, arguing that corporate mismanagement increased costs that shareholders should also be forced to bear.
But Van der Vaart said the increase in cost to ratepayers due to this decision is unavoidable. “It means electricity prices are going to go up, which is always unfortunate because the least able to pay will be hurt the most. This is certainly consistent with the Left’s efforts to make electricity more expensive, and specifically coal more expensive. That’s going to be used to push for more solar, wind and natural gas.”
Charlotte-based Duke Energy has 7.6 million electricity customers in the Carolinas, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.