CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - All 33 coal ash ponds across North Carolina will have to be closed by 2024, according to a classification report released Wednesday by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
The classifications were required by the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014.
Of the 33 coal ash ponds maintained by Duke Energy across the state, eight were required to be classified as high-risk by CAMA. Those ponds must be closed by 2019, as required by CAMA.
The remaining 25 ponds are classified as intermediate-risk and must be closed by 2024.
DOCUMENT: DEQ proposed classification chart
But in a press release announcing the ratings, DEQ also asked lawmakers for the ability to re-evaluate the ratings in 18 months.
"The classifications are based on the current risk of each pond's impact on public health and the environment. However, work that is already either planned or underway could significantly change the risk posed by the ponds," the department said in its release.
DEQ also said it is working with Duke Energy to find a permanent alternative water supply for the 240 households with water wells that have been affected by nearby coal ash ponds.
Those well owners received a notice from state health and environmental regulators in April 2015 warning them not to drink their water because it contained elevated levels of two potentially toxic elements. That order was reversed by state regulators a year later despite there being no change in the level of toxic elements present in the water.
"The residents' well water meets federal requirements for safe drinking water," DEQ's release said Wednesday. "However, Duke Energy has submitted a study that evaluates the feasibility of supplying permanent alternative water to nearby residents."
Duke Energy responded to Wednesday's report by calling the closure timeline mandated by the ratings 'extreme'.
"If NCDEQ's proposed recommendations are allowed to stand, without review and possible adjustments based on additional new information, the state will have chosen the most extreme closure option that will have a significant impact on customer costs and hinder economic development," the company said in a statement.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said it would take longer than the current deadlines outlined in the law to excavate some of the company's largest coal ash basins. Good also said it would potentially cost billions of dollars.
Instead, Good said, the company believes capping its intermediate-risk ponds would be significantly cheaper and just as safe for the environment.
But, when pressed by On Your Side Investigates, Good admitted none of the coal ash ponds are lined on the bottom, meaning coal ash could still seep into the water table.
"The modeling demonstrates that cap-in-place clearly is better for groundwater than excavation," a company spokeswoman Catherine Butler said following the call.
"Once water is removed from a basin to prepare for closure, ash will be in a much drier condition," Butler said. "This, and the installation of a protective cap, dramatically reduce the potential for substances to continue impacting groundwater. Groundwater monitoring will continue to track levels and would identify if additional solutions are needed."
Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, said capping Duke Energy's coal ash wells would not alleviate the risk coal ash poses to the water table.
"While duke interprets those reports in their own favor, if you look at the actual science in them, what it really reveals is that these are problematic sites that need to be cleaned up," Perkins said.
"These are wet ponds that are not lined on the water. In some cases, the vast majority of them are lying within the groundwater," Perkins said. "Even if you capped them on top you still have lateral groundwater movement that's going to continue to cause issues both with public water supplies as well as people who are nearby trying to use well water."
The company said the 25 coal ash ponds rated as intermediate-risk should be rated low-risk.
"NCDEQ acknowledges that all basins except those already designated as 'high' could be ranked 'low' once that work is done and other steps are taken, including ensuring plant neighbors have the assurance of a high-quality water supply," the company said.
The statement also elaborated on the possibility of providing permanent alternate drinking water to nearby residents who get their water from wells.
"The facts, supported by the most robust scientific and engineering studies in North Carolina, demonstrate that ash basins are not impacting neighbor wells," the company said. "We also recognize that for some, even that level of scientific rigor, may not provide sufficient assurance that their water is safe. We are exploring a range of options that give those neighbors peace of mind and will work with local communities and water utilities to begin addressing a myriad of questions on this issue."
Reaction from environmental advocates to DEQ's report was mixed Wednesday.
The North Carolina Conservation Network issued a statement that included quotes from a number of riverkeepers across the state warning of loopholes in DEQ's classifications.
"There are loopholes here that allow Duke to just kick the can down the road as far as cleanup goes," said Perkins, Catawba Riverkeeper. "There are hundreds of families across the state still living with contaminated water and have no idea when their communities will actually be cleaned up."
Other environmental advocates criticized DEQ's request to re-evaluate the ratings in 18 months.
"But this administration's determination to bail out Duke Energy knows no end – and rather than stand up for impacted communities, DEQ now wants the law changed to give Duke Energy a do over in 18 months," the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement responding to Wednesday's report. "Asking permission to change its story in 18 months allows Governor McCrory's administration to say one thing to get through the election this fall, all subject to revision after the election."