Raleigh, N.C. — State regulators say Duke Energy hasn't provided enough information regarding the utility's plans for handling toxic waste at its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.
After a Feb. 2 ash spill in the Dan River, Gov. Pat McCrory and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources gave Duke a March 15 deadline to provide detailed plans for how the company plans to protect the environment around its 32 ash ponds at 14 sites statewide.
Duke President and Chief Executive Lynn Good sent McCrory and DENR Secretary John Skvarla a four-page letter Wednesday outlining short- and long-term plans for the ash ponds, but Skvarla responded Thursday that he finds the letter lacking.
"Duke Energy’s response is inadequate," Skvarla said in a statement. "There are far too many questions left unanswered, and Duke Energy should provide the information we originally requested, including the estimated costs of cleanup, plans for the future and a detailed timeline."
DENR plans to enforce "mechanisms to not only derive the necessary information but to also enforce stringent timelines for fulfillment and completion of Duke Energy’s obligations to protect public health and the environment," he said.
Environmental groups applauded Good for Duke's efforts to clean up the Dan River spill, but they also said the company needs to take more decisive steps on its other ash ponds.
"While the letter offers hints of real promise," D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement, "Duke offers cold comfort to the many other North Carolina communities living with the contamination and hazards of Duke’s unlined coal ash pits."
Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club called Duke's plans "a good first step," but said it "does not fully rise to the challenge presented."
"Without more information, North Carolinians cannot be sure that their right to clean, safe drinking water will be protected. Without a clear commitment, hard-working families cannot be sure that one of the nation’s most prosperous companies won’t pass the buck," Martin said in a statement.
Good said Duke plans to move the ash from the spill site near Eden to a lined landfill or "structural fill solution" as soon as it can get the necessary permits, completing the move in 24 to 30 months. Ash from ponds in Gaston County and Asheville also would be moved to lined pits, and the company is considering such a solution for ash ponds in Wilmington, she said.
Duke also plans to dry out the ash in the ponds at all other retired power plants to minimize the risk of leaks and is conducting an engineering study of every ash pond to identify and address any other environmental risks. The company expects to finish the engineering studies by November and the de-watering process in three years, Good said.
She provides little detail, however, regarding the company's long-term plans, saying the company won't have those plans ready until the end of the year.
"This strategy will include a review of active ponds, inactive ponds and closure strategies for the remaining retired plants, will be informed by outside experts, and will include a risk-informed, tiered approach," she wrote. "The work will include a review of the effectiveness of ash storage management programs and practices to confirm that longer-term solutions are sustainable and lessons learned are captured for company-wide application. This comprehensive strategy will evaluate options up to and including complete conversion to all dry handling."
Duke needs to consider federal and state permits, transportation issues and local response in trying to dispose of the coal ash, Good said, which will affect how long actions take to complete as well as the cost.
She has said the utility plans to pass as much of the cost of disposing the ash through to customers as higher electric rates, although the company itself would pick up the tab for cleaning up the Dan River spill.