The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on May 18 released proposed classifications for all coal ash ponds in the state, while at the same time asking the General Assembly to allow the reconsideration of those classifications 18 months from now.
Unless state law is revised, the proposed classifications will become final within 60 days, according to a news release from DEQ.
Today’s announcement is an important milestone in the development of long-term closure solutions for coal ash basins, which store non-hazardous material, Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) said in its own news release. However and equally important, it acknowledges that work is incomplete and changes to the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) are necessary in order to get to final recommendations, Duke said.
If NCDEQ’s proposed recommendations are allowed to stand, without review and possible adjustments based on additional new information, the state will have chosen the “most extreme” closure option that will have a significant impact on customer costs and hinder economic development, Duke said.
In addition, it will cause decades of disruption to communities, all without additional, measurable environmental benefits. Given the scope of work, there is significant risk in meeting excavation deadlines by 2024.
The classifications are based on the current risk of each pond’s impact on public health and the environment. However, work that is already either planned or underway could significantly change the risk posed by the ponds.
The proposed classifications include the eight mandated as high priority under the law, and 25 classified by the action as intermediate.
High risk ponds must be dug up and closed by 2019 and intermediate ponds must be dug up and closed by 2024. The main risk factors driving today’s classifications were dam deficiencies that are currently being repaired, and potential impacts to nearby groundwater.
Although no dams present an imminent risk to life or property, a number of ponds were rated intermediate because of unfinished repairs. State regulators will use their existing legal authority to ensure those repairs are completed by the end of this year.
“The focus of the coal ash law was to safely close all coal ash ponds in North Carolina,” said Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental department. “The intent was not to set pond closure deadlines based on incomplete information. Making decisions based on incomplete information could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when spending millions now would provide equal or better protection.”
“The understanding we have today reflects countless hours of scientific and technical work by both state engineers and Duke Energy as well as thousands of comments by the public,” van der Vaart said.
High priority sites listed include the Duke Dan River station, which was at the center of a major coal ash spill into the Dan River along the North Carolina-Virginia line in 2014.