RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Duke Energy now has until 2024 to dig up all of its coal ash ponds across the North Carolina, the state said Wednesday, and the utility immediately raised concerns about the new timeline.
The Department of Environmental Quality released its final proposed classifications for Duke Energy’s ash ponds Wednesday. The proposed classifications include the eight mandated as high priority under the law, and 25 classified action as intermediate. High-risk ponds must be dug up and closed by 2019 and intermediate ponds must be dug up and closed by 2024.
“In light of overwhelming public comment asking that no community be treated as low priority, we are encouraged by today’s announcement,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the North Carolina Sierra Club.
Duke Energy already expressed concern about the possibility of digging up all of its sites under the tight deadline. They initially had until 2029 to clean up any sights classified as low risk. With the state’s new classifications, no ponds were labeled as low risk.
These proposed classifications will become final 60 days from Wednesday.
“The deadlines in the coal ash law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed,” said Donald R. van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental department. “It also does not allow for revisions to the classifications based on new information about a pond’s risk to public health and the environment.”
DEQ will recommend to the General Assembly that the classifications be re-evaluated after the dam safety repairs are made and the utility provides these permanent alternative water sources to nearby well owners.
This worries many environmental groups.
“Without further information, the McCrory administration’s request to the legislature to be able to revisit the classifications in 18 months appears to be a request for unilateral decision making. It’s unclear what oversight or public input there will be if these classifications can be revisited immediately before the deadline for closure plans. This is exactly what the legislature sought to avoid when drafting the Coal Ash Management Act,” Diggins said.
Duke Energy responded to DEQ’s proposed classifications by saying changes to the CAMA are necessary in order to get to final recommendations.
The utility said if the recommendations stand, the state has chosen the most extreme option and it “will have a significant impact on customer costs and hinder economic development.”
“We will seek to clarify CAMA within 60 days to help ensure the law is implemented in a way that makes North Carolina a thoughtful leader on this issue,” Duke Energy said in a release.
CBS North Carolina reached out to DEQ for an interview about the new classifications. A spokesman said they were not doing on-camera interviews on Wednesday.
But Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good spoke with reporters on a conference call.
“If DEQ’s recommendations are allowed to stand without review and possible adjustments based on new information, the state will have chosen the most extreme closure option costing customers the most money and decades of disruption without additional measurable environmental benefits,” Good said.
She said Duke’s focus for the next 60 days will be on pushing to have the proposal changed.
DEQ is requiring Duke to supply more information about safety and work being completed at each site. Good argued, and state regulators agree, that after on-going work is completed at each site, many can be reduced back down to a low classification.
Good also supported the “cap in place” option, which is not supported by environmental groups since the ponds are not required to be lined.
The company also maintains that private drinking water is in no way being impacted by their ash ponds, but they said they are open to discussions with neighboring city leaders about possible permanent alternative water solutions.
Duke Energy could not provide a cost estimate to excavate every ash pond, but said meeting a 2024 deadline may be unrealistic.
For a map of the proposed classifications for each coal ash impoundment, click here.
A table that shows the risk factors that determined each pond’s classification can be found here.