Twenty out of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash storage ponds in North Carolina are high- or intermediate-risk, according to a draft report released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that could drive the cleanup requirements for those sites.
That’s fewer than an earlier draft released earlier this month that showed 31 of the ponds in the higher risk categories. The state report ranks each of Duke’s ash ponds by some of the criteria set out in 2014 legislation on coal ash, such as the safety of dams and contamination of groundwater.
The ash is a byproduct of burning coal to create electricity and contains potentially harmful substances such as heavy metals. It is stored in pits next to power stations.
(To see the complete materials released, including a map of the coal ash ponds with their proposed ratings, click here.)
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“North Carolina is well on its way to permanently eliminating the decades-old threat of improperly stored coal ash,” said DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, in a statement. “DEQ’s draft classifications are the result of months of review of scientific information about each coal ash pond’s impact to the environment and public health.”
But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has fought the state over coal ash cleanup for years, blasted the proposed rankings, which it said were held up until the last minute and not definitive. The rankings, which aren’t final, were required to be released Thursday under state law.
The ratings include a “low-intermediate” risk category that eight of the coal ash ponds fall into. The state agency said it lacked sufficient information to make definite classifications of those ponds, and will make a final determination after reviewing more information.
“They waited until the very last day,” said Frank Holleman, the SELC’s senior attorney. “They say, ‘We can’t decide, we don’t know.’”
The proposed classifications will be subject to public comment in the coming months, with a meeting held at each site to gather input. The ratings are not final, and DEQ will release detailed analysis and the written findings that support its rankings within 30 days. DEQ will also review more information about the coal ash ponds submitted by Duke Energy in December and revise the ratings further.
In a statement, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company is working to excavate and close coal ash ponds at places such as the Riverbend Steam Station on the Catawba River, and working with regulators on plans for other locations.
“We are fully participating in this lengthy process, having provided the state with the most in-depth science and engineering studies experts have ever done around North Carolina ash basins,” Sheehan said. “We want to ensure NC DEQ has the information it needs for its evaluation, so in addition to meeting our commitments under CAMA, we’ve also given regulators new and supplemental information that they recently requested.”
Duke must excavate ash from high-risk ponds, including those at the Riverbend Steam Station on the Catawba River, and close those ponds by 2019. Intermediate-risk ponds must be closed by 2024, and low-risk ponds must be closed by 2029.
The high- and intermediate risk ponds much be excavated, a more expensive option than draining and capping them, which Duke can use for the low-risk ponds. Duke has already announced plans to excavate 24 of its ash ponds in the Carolinas.
The company has estimated the costs of closing all 32 ponds in North Carolina at $3.4 billion, which it would pass on to customers in the form of higher electricity rates.
Four of the company’s 32 coal ash ponds were ranked low-risk. Once DEQ finishes sorting out the low-intermediate risk category, the final number of coal ash ponds ranked high- or intermediate risk will be between 20 and 28.
DEQ officials criticized the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental advocacy groups releasing the earlier draft two weeks ago.
“I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data,” van der Vaart said, in his statement.
Holleman countered that the process was supposed to be open and transparent.
“Only the politicians at DEQ would consider telling the truth to be corruption,” he said.