Duke Energy to excavate more coal ponds in North Carolina

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Duke Energy announced plans Tuesday to fully excavate 12 more coal ash basins in North Carolina, including all ponds at the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro and its Cape Fear plant. (WTVD)

Duke Energy announced plans Tuesday to fully excavate 12 more coal ash basins in North Carolina, including all ponds at the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro and its Cape Fear plant.

The material will be used to fill in old mines in Lee and Chatham counties.

In North Carolina, excavation is already underway at Duke Energy's Asheville plant and Riverbend Steam Station.

Sites approved for excavation include the Dan River Steam Station (where a spill in February 2014 galvanized public interest in coal ash) and the L.V. Sutton plant in Wilmington.

Basins recommended for excavation now include Cape Fear in Moncure, H.F. Lee in Goldsboro, Rogers Energy Complex in Mooresboro, and the W.H. Weatherspoon Plant in Lumberton.

The work is expected to take years to complete. Company spokesman Jeff Brooks said it takes about one year to excavate one million tons of coal ash. At the Goldsboro site alone, there are six million tons of ash that need to be dried out and scooped out.

"This plant here has about six million tons of coal ash stored in five basins on the site," said Brooks. "We'll be excavating all of that coal ash and in some cases having to clear vegetation and trees and other activities in order to be able to get to that ash. But that ash will then be taken to a former clay mine - a brick mine in Lee County - and that's where it will be stored in a lined structural fill and then kept there and used beneficially to reclaim that land."

Many environmentalists are delighted by the announcement.

"This is a huge win," said Upper Neuse River Keeper Matt Starr. "For water quality, the greater Goldsboro community and for anyone who enjoys the Neuse River, depends on it for their livelihood, or just values having clean water, this is a big step in the right direction."

Starr puts much of the motivation for Duke's announcement on the environmental and activist community. "This is not happening because the Department of Environment and Natural Resources demanded it, this is not happening because of legislative action. This is happening because we have a group of activists who are demanding that action be taken."

Starr also notes that the Goldsboro site is one where dozens of homes have had to go on bottled water (at Duke Energy's expense) because of well contamination.

"There's a number of residents who live around the H.F. Lee facility that live very close to these coal ash ponds that have received letters telling them, 'Do not drink your water; do not cook with it. Your water is contaminated," said Starr.

However, Brooks says it came down to science.

"Our decision to excavate the coal ash at H.F. Lee was driven by months of engineering and science that determined the best option for what to do with the ash here. These basins exist in a 100 year flood plain so moving them is easier than engineering them to accommodate that requirement."

Not all environmentalists are as supportive of Duke's decision to move the ash to lined landfills.

Clean energy advocate Jim Warren, with NC WARN, put out this statement: "We fully share the concerns about ongoing contamination of waters at the existing coal ash sites. But we find it deeply regrettable that Duke and others could consider that expanding the number of contaminated sites - and abuse of local communities - is a sound and just solution. Duke continues to mislead the public and news media about the nature of its proposed dumps in Lee and Chatham."

Brooks said regardless of the criticism, Duke has marching orders from the state.

"We've got a tight deadline of 2029 where we have to have all excavation of 130 million tons of coal ash completed," he said. "We believe we can make that deadline but we've got to start today and we need to get moving."

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