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Duke Energy appeals coal ash cleanup order at 6 Carolina sites, including Lake Wylie

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Ron Socha, a cleanup coordinator at Savannah River Site, discusses how coal ash ponds are being cleaned out to prevent any contamination.
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Ron Socha, a cleanup coordinator at Savannah River Site, discusses how coal ash ponds are being cleaned out to prevent any contamination.

Duke Energy is appealing the order requiring the Charlotte-based company to excavate coal ash from nine basins, including its Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie.

Duke says the ash can be capped in place safely, which would cost less time and money.

“We do not want our customers and communities burdened with billions in additional costs and decades of disruption when the science shows no equivalent environmental or public health benefit to excavating these sites,” said Duke’s North Carolina president Stephen De May.

Duke filed the appeal Friday with the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings. North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on April 1 ordered Duke to excavate millions of tons of coal ash, a byproduct containing heavy metals, from ash ponds at power plants.

The appeal involves nine ash basins at six sites, including the Allen site in Belmont on Lake Wylie and Marshall site on Lake Norman.

Duke says capping and monitoring sites, approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration as a viable option, would reduce community impact.

Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones disagrees and called for full excavation during public debate ahead of the April 1 order.

Jones told The Herald that capped coal ash is a perpetual problem with an ongoing possibility of leaks or spills into the Catawba River or its lakes.

“Once again they are attempting to put profits before human health and the environment,” Jones posted on the Riverkeeper website two weeks ago in anticipation of Duke’s appeal. “They have chosen to ignore the public, regulators and their own data because it is not convenient.”

Duke officials said prior to the state order, they studied options from capping the ash to consolidating it to full removal. Options just at the Allen site ranged from $185 million and nine year estimates for capping the ash to $1.2 billion and 20 years for excavation.

Their preferred choice of capping the coal ash isn’t just about saving money, Duke officials say, and other the options also protect the community from contaminated water.

“It’s not about cost,” said company spokesperson Bill Norton. “It’s about cost for no benefit for our customers.”

Duke has several sites outside of North Carolina already closed or being closed. The company announced in the fall it would close seven North Carolina coal plants within 30 years. Two years earlier, Duke announced plans to close 36 coal ash basins -- proposing to excavate about twice as many as cap -- including Allen and Marshall.

Duke already excavated more than 20 million tons of ash in North Carolina.

“There are common-sense, case-by-case closure options available that will continue our significant progress in safely closing all our ash basins,” De May said.

Duke said the nine basins involved in Friday’s appeal are considered low risk to the environment and public health, as ranked by the state environmental agency. The appeal argues the state picked the most expensive method without any public benefit compared to other options, adding up to $5 billion in “additional and unnecessary costs.”

Even without those costs, Duke estimates cleanup could cost $5.6 billion.

“We share the same goals of permanently and safely closing all ash basins, and we’ve made great progress to date,” De May said. “In the meantime, we are compelled to appeal this order, which is not supported by the scientific evidence, has significant procedural errors and would impose tremendous costs on customers without any measurable benefit.”

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