Raleigh, N.C. — After years of refusing to tell state regulators how failed dams could impact areas downstream of coal ash ponds, Duke Energy has supplied most of the information months ahead of a 2015 legislative deadline.
In a letter from Duke last week, the company said it planned to submit additional details on the dams' emergency action plans, or EAPs, requested by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources no later than Dec. 22.
Duke and other owners of intermediate- and high-hazard dams are now required to submit EAPs as part of the state legislature's 2014 coal ash legislation. The measure passed in the wake of a ruptured pipe that dumped 40,000 tons of coal ash from one of Duke's retaining ponds into the Dan River in Rockingham County in February.
Duke operates 49 intermediate- and high-hazard dams at 15 retired and operational energy plants, including 13 plants that store coal ash.
Inundation maps for coal ash dams now on file
A major part of emergency action plans are inundation maps, which detail how dam breaches would affect areas downstream. For more than three years, WRAL News reported in April, Duke used a loophole in state law to avoid filing those maps with the state.
"An EAP without a valid and up-to-date inundation map is pretty much no good," Bridget Munger, a DENR spokeswoman, told WRAL News last spring.
But under the coal ash law, Duke has until March 1 to submit complete EAPs, including inundation maps, to DENR and the state Department of Public Safety.
Munger said this week that state regulators received EAPs and inundation maps for all of Duke's coal ash sites, although not all are "satisfactory." For 32 of the 49, DENR dam safety engineers have requested revisions and additional information ranging from more legible map notations to proof drawings were completed by professional engineers.
To submit those changes, Duke will use a new online portal state officials launched last month to collect EAPs from dam owners and distribute them to environmental regulators and emergency personnel when needed.
State Dam Safety Engineer Steve McEvoy said the new tool walks dam owners through the process of submitting emergency plans, much like Turbotax walks citizens through filing tax returns.
Although the EAP filing deadline applies to all intermediate- and high-hazard dams in the state – not just those storing coal ash – Duke is one of the largest owners in the state. That's why McEvoy said DENR worked with the company as the tool entered its "beta-plus stage."
"We've asked Duke to more or less be our first large entry on this," McEvoy said.
McEvoy said the company has encountered a few bugs with the tool, created by both DENR and DPS, which the agencies are working to fix.
He said he's confident Duke will have all of its emergency plans, including the additional information requested by regulators, in before the March deadline. But he said he wasn't sure about the other 1,500 or so dam owners across the state.
"That remains to be seen," McEvoy said. "I don't know exactly how that will turn out."
Dam owners that don't comply may be subject to civil or criminal penalties, he said.
Access to plans limited
Only state officials with the two departments will be able to access EAPs through the online system, meaning, for now, emergency responders on the county level will have to get them through state public safety officials. But McEvoy said that could change given continued conversations with local emergency personnel.
But one thing won't change: The plans remain off-limits to the public.
Through at least February 2012, DENR had released EAPs in response to records requests by environmental groups seeking more information about the state's coal ash ponds.
Under pressure from Duke, WRAL News reported in April, the state environmental agency changed its stance on the potential release of these documents, telling a requester in May 2013 that EAPs qualified as "sensitive public security information."
The 2014 coal ash law made that exemption from public records explicit.