CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Duke Energy has agreed to excavate all of its unlined coal ash basins in North Carolina as part of an agreement it announced Monday morning with environmental activists and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
The announcement follows years of debate over what to do with more than a dozen unlined coal ash basins across the state, including at least four in the WBTV viewing area.
In recent years, scrutiny has been placed upon the basins as questions of high levels of toxic elements were repeatedly found in the drinking water of homes near Duke facilities.
A 2016 WBTV investigation found elevated levels of hexavalent chromium--the same toxic element made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich--in well water used by homes near the Cliffside Steam Station in rural Cleveland County.
State tests in prior years found elevated levels of the same substance and others in the well water of homes near the Allen Steam Station in Gaston County and the Buck Steam Station in Rowan County.
Duke Energy had previously agreed to begin providing a permanent, alternative source of drinking water for neighbors near the Allen and Buck plants.
Previous Coverage: Neighbors, watchdogs question state’s decision on water safety
Thursday’s announcement that the company would close each of its coal ash basins comes as an about face from a company that fought such a move for years.
State regulators at DEQ had previously ordered the excavation of some coal ash plants in the state and the closure of others, a move the company had said could cost more than $10 billion.
In announcing the new agreement to permanently close all coal ash basins on Thursday, the company said the agreement would reduce its cost to close all of the state’s 31 coal ash basins by $1.5 billion, with an estimated cost of between $8 billion and $9 billion.
“This agreement significantly reduces the cost to close our coal ash basins in the Carolinas for our customers, while delivering the same environmental benefits as full excavation,” Stephen De May, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president, said in a statement “We are fully focused on these important activities and building a clean energy future for the Carolinas.”
The agreement was also heralded in press releases sent Thursday morning by both environmentalists and state regulators.
“This agreement is the culmination of nine years of work by communities across North Carolina and puts in place the most extensive coal ash cleanup in the nation,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents the community groups in court seeking coal ash cleanups in North Carolina. “With the agreements and court orders governing eight other coal ash sites, we now have in place a historic cleanup of coal ash lagoons to protect North Carolina’s clean water and families from coal ash pollution. North Carolina’s communities will be safer and North Carolina’s water will be cleaner than they have been in decades.”
Duke Energy said the work to move coal ash to lined landfills and, in other cases, to recycle the material, will stretch until 2035, pending speedy review and approval of state permits.
The company said it would also take steps to better protect groundwater at some of its coal ash basins.
“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long. They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan. “We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions as we protect public health, the environment and our natural resources.”