SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - A deal has been reached to remove coal ash from three basins at the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury. The deal was announced by Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center Wednesday afternoon.
Duke Energy said it plans to remove the coal ash from the Buck Steam Station and "safely recycle the valuable material for concrete."
The Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Duke can either recycle it into concrete or put it "in a modern lined landfill away from the Yadkin River and separated from groundwater and drinking water sources."
"This important step forward provides certainty for neighbors about our closure plans and allows us to recycle more coal ash to benefit our customers and North Carolina's economy," said David Fountain, Duke Energy's North Carolina president.
The Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said after two years of 'fighting' with Duke, "the Dukeville community will finally be assured of the two things we have been fighting for: a long-term supply of clean drinking water and meaningful ash clean up."
Duke says coal ash is a "non-hazardous material created when coal is burned to produce electricity. Recycling is the only way to avoid permanent disposal of the material."
"However, much of the ash stored in basins has too much carbon to be used in concrete products," Duke officials continued. "To make coal ash more suitable for recycling, Duke Energy is making additional, significant investments in technology designed to reprocess coal ash from basins."
According to the SELC, Duke Energy plans to set up a concrete recycling facility at the Buck site much like the ones serving South Carolina utilities which entered into similar settlements with conservation groups in 2012 and 2013.
The settlement was reached in litigation after a federal lawsuit was filed against Duke Energy by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance. It is now a binding legal settlement in that case.
"Duke Energy's finally done the right thing for this community by entering into a binding agreement that requires the coal ash to be removed and recycled, just as has been done in South Carolina," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "We hope that Duke Energy and other utilities will take the same steps to protect other communities and rivers from coal ash pollution. Southeastern utilities are now excavating 60 million tons of coal ash from leaking, unlined pits throughout the region."
According to the SELC, Duke Energy stores approximately 5 million tons of coal ash at the Buck facility and says the site "has been polluting groundwater and the Yadkin River for years."
The conservation groups have been pressing litigation against Duke Energy for its coal ash storage at the Buck site since 2013, and the federal suit was filed in 2014.
According to Duke, the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 encourages even more recycling and requires the company to install three recycling units across the state, making 900,000 or more tons of material available each year.
"Today's announcement is well ahead of state deadlines for announcing locations for recycling units. The locations for the second and third units are still being evaluated, and a decision is expected in the coming months," officials said. "Next, the company will work with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to acquire necessary permits and begin processing material."
All 33 coal ash ponds across North Carolina will have to be closed by 2024, according to a classification report released in May by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. The classifications were required by the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014.
Duke said its plan to remove and recycle ash at the Buck facility also addresses the issues in a federal citizen lawsuit brought by the SELC. Both Duke Energy and SELC will make the necessary court filings to dismiss that case.
After the story was posted, Mike Rusher - the Communications Director for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality - sent a statement to WBTV.
"These left wing extremists are trying to take credit for something that was always an option under the existing state coal ash law," Rusher said. "This administration was the first in North Carolina to order every coal ash pond be closed and post record fines for environmental violations. We are implementing toughest coal ash law in the nation."