RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — All coal-ash pits in North Carolina maintained by Duke Energy power plants pose enough of an environmental risk that they should be excavated and moved by 2024, state environmental regulators said Wednesday.
But the state Department of Environmental Quality said it's asking for a change in state law that would allow it to reconsider its risk assessment in 18 months.
The agency was required to submit its risk rankings for all 33 pits by Wednesday under a state law passed in 2014 after a spill at a Duke Energy coal-ash pit coated 70 miles of the Dan River in a toxic sludge. The law required that eight pits at four plants be excavated by 2019.
Fewer pits would have to be excavated if repairs to dams retaining the liquefied waste are finished and neighbors, including hundreds of people who last year were warned against drinking their well water, are provided a "permanent alternative" supply, the agency said.
Duke Energy in 2014 floated a potential cost to excavate coal ash from 14 of its coal-burning power plants at $10 billion. The company has said it expected to ask state utilities regulators to allow it to pass along its coal-ash bill to electricity customers. The company last year estimated the likely costs at about $4 billion, which could raise power rates for the average North Carolina household by about $18 a year over 25 years.
The reevaluation would allow regulators to see if fewer pits would need excavation.
"The deadlines in the coal ash law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed," state environment secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement. "The intent was not to set pond closure deadlines based on incomplete information. Making decisions based on incomplete information could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when spending millions now would provide equal or better protection."
The alternative method of closing all of Duke Energy's coal-ash basins is to drain off excess water and cover the remaining residue in plastic and dirt. Environmentalists warn covering the unlined coal ash pits could continue allowing toxic pollutants to escape for decades.
Environmentalists blasted the agency's proposal to revisit in late 2017 its plan for excavating coal ash and van der Vaart's boss, Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for nearly three decades.
"Requesting that the legislature revisit the law and requirements 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," attorney DJ Gerken said in a statement.
He works for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which for years has been trying to force Duke Energy to clean up water pollution the group links to the unlined coal ash pits.
The environmental agency said in December that pollution is leaking into underground water deposits from unlined coal-ash pits at all 14 power plants run by the country's largest electric company. Coal ash contains toxic elements including arsenic, lead and chromium.
Duke Energy says the 112 million tons of coal ash in its pits aren't polluting water supplies. Company spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.
Last May, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to federal environmental crimes and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution for years of illegal pollution leaking from coal-ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.
Seven months ago, a federal judge chided North Carolina's environmental agency for its apparent laxness in forcing Duke Energy to clean up groundwater pollution near a coal-burning power plant in Salisbury where neighbors can't drink their well water. U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs said she couldn't see that the agency had been diligent in enforcing federal clean water laws over coal ash leaking from Duke Energy storage pits around the Buck power plant on the Yadkin River.
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