The state’s environmental agency took steps Friday that could force Duke Energy to move coal ash from two more plants – Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County and the Asheville Steam Station in Buncombe County – and speed up the closure of a third, the Sutton Steam Electric Plant near Wilmington.
The action is similar to what the Department of Environment and Natural Resources did earlier this month at the Dan River Steam Station in Rockingham County, where the agency said it would modify the plant’s wastewater discharge permit.
By re-opening the permit process, the state can impose new requirements on the company, including forcing it to remove coal ash from its basins. On Feb. 2, a leaking pipe spilled tons of coal ash into the Dan River.
Duke Energy was notified in writing of the actions on Friday, and by law it has 60 days to respond. On Wednesday, the company responded to DENR’s demand for a detailed plan on what it intends to do about coal ash removal; but the agency said the four-page letter was inadequate.
The plan says Duke intends to remove ash from the Dan River, Riverbend and Asheville sites and put the material in modern, lined landfills to be stored in dry form. DENR’s step on Friday is meant to ensure that Duke follows through on its plan, according to the agency.
But the environmental law group that has been pushing DENR to take stronger action to clean up and safely store the coal ash around North Carolina, discounted Friday’s announcement.
“This looks like a carefully choreographed dance between Duke and DENR,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Holleman said DENR’s action on Friday is weaker than what Duke promised to do at those three plants, since the agency is only saying it might force the removal of the coal ash.
He said if the agency was serious about getting tough on Duke it could ask a state court judge to enforce the order he issued earlier this month that could require Duke to immediately clean up the coal ash at all its sites.
The path the regulatory agency is on, he said, will be unnecessarily protracted, with months of time allowed for formal responses in advance of what could ultimately be a contested case that ends up back in court.
“DENR is very obviously picking the least effective way to pursue Duke’s legal violations,” Holleman said.
The attorney also said DENR’s plan to require Duke to “de-water” the Sutton coal ash ponds is worse than doing nothing, because it involves emptying the wastewater into a lake. Holleman acknowledged the water could be treated, but noted the current permit doesn’t require that. However, that’s what DENR could require by re-opening the permit process.