CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This year Duke Energy plans to shut down half of its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. But thousands of tons of coal ash will be left behind and Duke doesn’t plan to start cleaning it up for years.
But at least one coal-fired power plant in South Carolina is ahead of schedule in cleaning up coal ash.
The Wateree Station -- southeast of Columbia -- has dried out its coal ash pond and is digging up the ash and trucking it to a lined landfill, where the heavy metals and arsenic will no longer leak into the nearby Wateree River.
The cleanup is governed by a settlement reached after environmental groups sued South Carolina Electric and Gas, known as SCE&G.
Not so in North Carolina.
“It's really a very simple notion,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is now suing Duke Energy over coal ash disposal. “It's not cutting edge technology; it's just basic common sense.”
Environmental groups like the Catawba Riverkeeper are suing Duke Energy to prompt the utility to get moving and clean up the remaining coal ash. But Duke is in no hurry.
“We don't act hastily,” said Duke spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann. “We base all our decisions on science and engineering; that's the kind of business we run.”
Hoffman said Duke will begin hydrology studies in 2014 and present plans for the final disposal of coal ash in 2015. In the meantime, coal ash ponds are leaking into Mountain Island Lake, the source of drinking water for most of Mecklenburg and Gaston Counties.
“Why do people in North Carolina get less protection than people in South Carolina?” asks Holleman.
“We are required to do routine monitoring,” said Hoffman. “I can see it done every day. Water quality is good, it continues to be good.”
The lawsuit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center is pending. So is a consent agreement proposed by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Neither is moving fast enough to suit environmental groups, who would like to see the coal ash ponds cleaned up sooner rather than later.