WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- State environmental regulators have notified Duke Energy that the company may have to remove coal ash from its two waste dumps at the power plant site in Rockingham County that contaminated the Dan River.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Tuesday that it plans to consider changing a permit that allows Duke Energy to discharge a certain amount of wastewater into the Dan River from a pipe downstream of a 4-foot storm-water pipe that ruptured Feb. 2, allowing about 39,000 tons of coal ash to spill into the Dan River.
“Based on our investigation of this spill, one option under consideration right now is to eliminate all coal ash waste discharges coming from this facility and require that Duke Energy move the coal ash waste stored onsite to a lined landfill away from any waterways," said Tom Reeder, the director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources.
The storm-water pipes are no longer discharging any waste to the Dan River, officials said.
The permit for the wastewater pipe is the one that DENR will review.
As is required by law, the state agency must give Duke Energy 60 days to respond. The notification letter was sent out Monday, officials said. Duke has until April 25 to respond.
The DENR announcement comes the same day that a demonstration in front of Duke's main office culminated with the delivery of 9,000 signatures on petitions urging the company to take full responsibility for the clean-up cost as well as documented contamination statewide, according to officials with Appalachian Voices, a conservation group based in Boone.
The demonstrators were initially given permission from Duke to send three representatives into the building to deliver the petitions. However, a security guard refused to let them in, according to Appalachian Voices. When reporters began tweeting about the turn of events, a PR person from Duke came outside to accept the petitions.
Conservation groups viewed DENR’s announcement about possibly requiring Duke to move its coal ash as a step in the right direction, but also expressed a cautious note.
Pressed by conservationists, DENR filed four lawsuits in 2013 against Duke alleging violations of state or federal clean-water laws. The coal-fired power plants at each of the company’s 14 sites are either allowing contaminants to seep into water or allowing discharges to go directly into water, according to the lawsuits. At most of the sites, both violations are occurring.
"It is an encouraging change of direction for DENR to now embrace this solution, but still DENR calls this obvious common-sense solution only ‘one option,’” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In the coal ash lawsuits that involve the Dan River site and 11 other power-plant sites, the SELC is representing conservation groups from across the state, including the Catawba Riverkeeper, the Neuse Riverkeeper, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Winyah Bay Foundation.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said Duke would respond to the state’s notification and is working to develop an “appropriate resolution.”
Besides Holleman, other conservation groups expressed reserved optimism about DENR's announcement.
"This is moderately good news as it's the first indication from DENR that it is considering decisive action to prevent further pollution from this site," said Amy Adams, who is a former DENR supervisor and currently the N.C. campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices.
"But 'considering' is the operative word in its press release. I don't take a lot of comfort in vague promises, and neither should other North Carolinians. Duke has coal ash problems at all of its 13 other sites across the state, and should begin today to remove the ash and dispose of it in dry, lined landfills," Adams said.
Rick Gaskins, the executive director of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation Inc., said it would be a good first step if DENR requires Duke to remove its coal ash.
"However, it is my understanding that DENR is considering giving Duke a blanket permit for all of the illegal seepages, and we will need to closely monitor the permit revision process to make sure that DENR does not give Duke a free pass on the current illegal discharges as part of the permit revision," Gaskins said.
Coal ash is a dark sludge carrying the carcinogenic byproduct of the coal that is burned by utility companies to churn power plants. Duke Energy manages about 84 million tons of coal ash in a wet form in ponds. A total of 31 dumps contain the coal ash: 13 active ponds, 14 semiactive and four inactive, according to the company and EPA.
The two main options now are whether to remove the coal ash or allow it to remain in place by capping it. Most conservationists favor removal to prevent such catastrophes as the Dan River spill.
"Anything short of that commitment from DENR and Duke fails to protect communities and drinking water supplies across our entire state," said Dean Naujoks, the executive director of the Yadkin Riverkeeper.