Coal ash pond closures 'on hold' in N.C.


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An online petition on that's aimed at encouraging Duke Energy to clean up its two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds at its Riverbend coal plant caught my attention last week. The two ponds in question drain into Mountain Island Lake (aka Charlotte's drinking water).

I brought the petition to the attention of Duke Energy so it could correct some false information on the petition website - the plant is 83 years old, not 100 years old, for example - and to find out how things were going with the well-publicized plan to shut down Riverbend. To answer the last question I also called the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"The pond closure process is on hold right now because of litigation and also [because of] some legislation that's moving through," according to a voicemail department spokeswoman Susan Massengale left me Monday.

"What? What? What?," I thought.

  • Riverbend

But she was right. The General Assembly was attempting to usurp her department's authority via House Bill 818, which would have created an appointed committee of politicians - not the experts in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources - to decide if coal ash is an issue in North Carolina, and what should be done about it.

We're not certain if that is the legislation Massengale was referring to, though - H.B. 613 also includes potential coal ash waste legislation; she has not responded to several requests for clarification. If she does, we will update this post.

Duke Energy responded to my e-mail on Friday. A company spokeswoman Erin Culbert wrote that the company is on the case.

Here is part of the exact Q&A:
How are the closure/retirement plans (for the ponds) coming along?

Duke Energy currently is in the initial phases of decommissioning at the Riverbend site. Since the April 1 retirement date, our decommissioning team has been getting the site into a safe condition for future abatement and demolition. This involves eliminating materials no longer needed, draining fuel oil, cleaning tanks and other similar projects.

We are required to submit an ash basin closure plan to state regulators one year prior to closing the basins, so we are making preparations for that now. Consultants will conduct site-specific scientific and engineering studies next year that will provide the data and recommendations about the most appropriate closure method to provide high, long-term water quality protection.

According to Duke Energy - which isn't studyin' that online petition (324 signatures and counting with 67 days to go) - it's preparing to work with the state on the coal ash pond closure process even if the state is "on hold."

However, legal experts told me the legislation shouldn't keep the state from pursuing the matter.

"There is absolutely nothing preventing the state from proceeding with responsible closure plans," said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That means neither the lawsuits that have been brought against Duke Energy nor any proposed legislation - state or federal - are hindering the state's ability to work with the company on closing the coal ash slurry ponds that are both leaking, according to the Catawba Riverkeeper, and draining into Charlotte's main drinking water reservoir.

Both Holleman's organization and North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources have filed lawsuits against Duke Energy because of the coal ash ponds at Riverbend - the same ones that has petitioners at concerned. In fact, Duke Energy is being repeatedly sued because the coal ash ponds at its plants (Riverbend isn't the only offender) are polluting state drinking water - water the citizens of the state drink, bathe in, cook with, play in and actually own, according to the state's constitution.

But the state government is essentially using an excuse generated within itself to slow down environmental cleans ups that will benefit everyone in the state. Oh, the hypocrisy!

Check out some state documents on two of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds.

See how close the Riverbend coal ash ponds are to Charlotte's drinking water.

Rhiannon Fionn (@rhifionn) is an independent journalist currently working on a film about coal ash (@coal_ash).