Duke Energy weighs in on coal ash bills, local lawsuit

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Prompted by recent buzz surrounding coal ash cleanup, Duke Energy hosted a June 23 informational meeting at the Coastline Conference and Event Center where local citizens could learn about operations at the Sutton Plant.

“We want them to know, number one, that we are a good neighbor, that we are committed to managing the plant and our coal ash responsibly, that we are committed to closing our plants in an environmentally responsible way that looks at all the options that are available,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks.

Brooks said Duke officials are considering three closure techniques: excavating coal ash stored in ponds on site and moving it to lined landfills, beneficial reuse in construction projects, and capping ash on site for long-term storage.

Brooks noted that 160,000 tons of coal ash from the Sutton Plant was used as structural fill in construction of the Wilmington Bypass.

Brooks said no decision will be made until the legislature adopts a plan. He pegged Senate Bill 729, sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca and  Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, as particularly difficult to implement. The bill, introduced on June 17, builds on the governor’s coal ash plan by establishing a timeline for closure of all 33 coal ash ponds in the state by 2029.

“The legislation has very aggressive timelines. It’s going to require that all of our coal ash basins be closed in 15 years. We have identified that closure could take up to 30 years at some of our plants, so that’s going to create some significant challenges for the company,” Brooks said.

One of the main challenges with that plan would be handling ash generated at Duke’s plants still powered by coal. Brooks said the legislation currently suggests those plants would have to keep ash dry and store it in landfills, which could cost as much as $2 billion.

Environmental advocates have criticized the bill for not requiring all coal ash to be moved away from waterways and into lined landfills. Under the Senate bill, coal ash at low-risk facilities could be capped and stored on site.

A group of House Democrats led by Rep. Pricey Harrison filed a stricter bill on May 27 that would require Duke to move all its ash to lined landfills without passing the cost to ratepayers. It passed its first reading and moved to the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy, where it awaits further consideration.

Brooks said the company has pledged that any closure plan adopted would remove water from the ponds, adding that the ponds at Sutton are predominantly dried out.

Brooks also weighed in on a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of local environmental groups. The groups assert that pollution at Sutton Lake violates the Clean Water Act since the lake is maintained as a public fishery by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

The lake was formed in 1972 as a source of water to cool the plant’s boilers. Brooks said Duke continues to manage the lake as a cooling pond.

“Sutton Lake is by design a cooling pond for the plant. It’s not a public water. We certainly allow fishing on it … and those that enjoy fishing find it to be a great site to do that. But its primary purpose is a cooling pond. As we go forward, we still contend that it should be treated as such,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that while there are elevated levels of heavy metals like selenium in the lake’s waters, the levels fall within state water standards.

In addition to coal ash management, information about the coal plant decommissioning process and new natural gas operations at the Sutton Plant was available for visitors.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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