At Last, Giant Duke Energy Must Come Clean - Waterkeeper

At Last, Giant Duke Energy Must Come Clean

By: Waterkeeper Alliance

Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant on North Carolina’s Dan River, with its massive coal-ash storage pit in the foreground, was the site of a catastrophic spill in 2014 that coated the Dan River with toxic coal ash for 70 miles. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.

It took nearly a decade of work by a broad, dedicated coalition of groups, including several Waterkeepers, but Duke Energy, the nation’s largest power company, has finally agreed to clean up their coal-ash mess in their home state of North Carolina.

This will be the largest coal-ash cleanup in American history — over 122-million tons of toxic ash at six facilities. It comes after years of legal actions by the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, several North Carolina Waterkeeper organizations and other environmental groups. A settlement agreement signed at the end of 2019 between the company, the environmental groups, and the state was the final step in Duke Energy agreeing to clean up all of its coal ash sites in North Carolina.

“This settlement is a fantastic victory for the Catawba and all North Carolinians,” said Brandon Jones, Catawba Riverkeeper. Two out of the final six coal ash facilities affected by the 2019 settlement sit within the Catawba-Wateree river basin. “With this agreement, the total amount of ash being removed from leaking pits on the banks of North Carolina waters is well over 100 million tons,” Jones said. “It is the culmination of countless hours of work by dozens of groups and thousands of individuals. We are proud to have filed the first lawsuit in 2013 and we are encouraged by the completed excavation at several of the sites.”

For decades, Duke Energy stored coal-ash in unlined pits alongside rivers and streams, contaminating them and poisoning drinking water and the surrounding environment with heavy metals and other toxins.

As a result this settlement, Duke Energy must excavate the coal ash stored in these dangerous leaking pits and either safely recycle the ash into concrete or move it to lined landfills away from the waterways.

The issue of coal-ash storage drew national attention following a massive spill in Tennessee in 2008. Cleanup became a priority in North Carolina after a 2014 leak from a Duke Energy site left ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River. Water sampling done by groups, including Waterkeeper Alliance and local Waterkeepers, prior to and following the Dan River spill, brought further attention to the fact that Duke Energy’s coal-ash sites were contaminating drinking-water wells.

“With this agreement, the total amount of ash being removed from leaking pits on the banks of North Carolina waters is well over 100 million tons.”

Duke Energy pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal environmental crimes for the Dan River spill and for failing to maintain equipment and allow the release of toxic coal ash and coal-ash wastewater into waterways at four other power plants. The company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.

The Southern Environmental Law Center reached the December 2019 settlement with Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to clean up coal ash at the six North Carolina sites on behalf of Appalachian Voices, MountainTrue, Catawba Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, Neuse Riverkeeper/ Sound Rivers, and N.C. State Conference of the NAACP.

This win is the culmination of decades of work by an even broader coalition, including Clean Water for NC, Environment NC, Greenpeace, NC Conservation Network, NC League of Conservation Voters, NC Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Winyah Rivers Alliance, and Yadkin Riverkeeper.