Duke appeals judge’s order to clean up coal ash pits

Duke Energy has appealed a judge’s order to take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination at its coal ash dumps.

The nation’s largest electric utility filed an appeal Thursday to a March 6 order by Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway. The order said Duke must immediately clean up the sources of groundwater contamination at its 32 coal ash dumps at 14 coal-fired plants.

Duke Energy said it can not immediately clean up the pits per the judge’s order, and that it needed more time or else the cleanup “will impose significant material costs on Duke Energy and its customers as well as potentially affect its ability to generate power.”

Duke further requested a stay pending the outcome of its appeal.

Environmental groups argued that despite repeated calls — and monitoring wells that showed contaminated groundwater at the ash dumps — regulators failed to take enforcement action.

Ridgeway ruled that state regulators have failed to properly apply state law to the toxic ash pits.

The case began in October 2012, when the Southern Environmental Law Center — on behalf of several groups — asked the state Environment Management Commission for a ruling to clarify how the state was applying rules for groundwater contamination at waste dumps.

The 15-member commission — which is part of DENR — is responsible for adopting rules to protect the state’s air and water resources.

SELC wanted the commission to order regulators to force Duke to take immediate corrective action when toxic chemicals in the groundwater exceeded water quality standards “at or beyond the compliance boundary.”

In its Dec. 20, 2012 decision, the commission interpreted state rules to mean contaminated groundwater didn’t have to be cleaned up until they assessed the problem.

But Ridgeway’s order reversed that decision. He said that violators “must take immediate action to eliminate sources of contamination that cause a concentration of a substance in excess of groundwater quality standards.”

Duke’s request for a stay is based on the grounds that Ridgeway’s order “reversed a long-standing administrative interpretation and application of the North Carolina groundwater protection rule … to the coal ash ponds located at Duke Energy’s power plants in North Carolina.”

Duke also said Ridgeway’s order “will have effects beyond the Ash Ponds throughout the State of North Carolina and, based upon an analysis by DENR, will materially impact 700 sites overseen by the Division of Water Resources and 2,020 sites overseen by the Division of Waste Management.”

Regardless of the appeal, Duke said it is committed to cleaning up coal ash ponds at its Asheville Plant, Dan River Steam Station and Riverbend Steam Station.

“These actions were set forth in a March 12, 2014, letter from Duke Energy’s Chief Executive Officer to the Governor of North Carolina and will be unaffected by either the appeal or the imposition of a stay,” Duke said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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