Eight sites are classified as high-risk sites, and 25 are classified as intermediate-risk, based on dam deficiencies that are currently being repaired and potential impacts to nearby groundwater, DEQ says. None are listed as low-priority sites, which would have meant coal ash could have been capped in place in unlined storage pits at these sites, where it could continue to pollute groundwater.
These classifications were mandated under the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 and they determine the timeline and method Duke Energy has to use to close coal ash pits across the state. Under the law, high-risk sites must be excavated and the coal ash moved to dry, lined storage containers by December 31, 2019. Intermediate-risk sites have until December 31, 2024 to do the same.
But, in what the North Carolina Sierra Club calls an "unusual request," the McCrory administration has asked the legislature to reserve the authority to revisit the site classifications in eighteen months. DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart says the state has "incomplete information" about the risks of each individual coal ash site, and that the deadlines under the law "are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed."
“[The law] also does not allow for revisions to the classifications based on new information about a pond’s risk to public health and the environment,” van der Vaart said in a statement. “The focus of the coal ash law was to safely close all coal ash ponds in North Carolina. 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.”
Though pleased with the classifications released today, environmentalists are wary of the request to revisit them in a year and a half.
"In light of overwhelming public comment asking that no community be treated as low priority, we are encouraged by today’s announcement,” said Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, in a statement.
“Without further information, the McCrory administration’s request to the legislature to be able to revisit the classifications in eighteen months appears to be a request for unilateral decision making. It’s unclear what oversight or public input there will be if these classifications can be revisited immediately before the deadline for closure plans. This is exactly what the legislature sought to avoid when drafting the Coal Ash Management Act."
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matt Starr and Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott are even more blunt.
"It is past time for the state to make Duke Energy clean them up, without leaving a door open to backtrack after the election,” said Starr.
“We were disappointed that DEQ has requested a 'do over' on these classifications from the legislature in eighteen months,” said Scott. “That will play into Duke Energy’s hands and give them a chance to use their political influence to downgrade sites like Buck where tens of thousands of gallons of polluted water a day leak from the coal ash ponds into the Yadkin River.”
Not shockingly, Duke Energy is getting behind the DEQ loophole on this one, and says in a statement that if DEQ'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."
"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."
Duke Energy goes a step further, saying it will seek to clarify the Coal Ash Management Act in the next sixty days "to help ensure the law is implemented in a way that makes North Carolina a thoughtful leader on this issue."
So the state's proposal is too extreme for Duke Energy, but there's a caveat (or two) for Duke Energy- slash-the McCrory administration to disregard the state's own law on coal ash management, based on "incomplete information," which it almost certainly will.
It's well thought-out, you have to give them all that.
Here's video of Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good:
Here's a map of the proposed risk classifications of coal ash ponds across the state: