Jul 24 2016

North Carolina’s Coal Ash – An Eventful Spring and Summer

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On July 15th, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R.) finally signed a bill into law requiring Duke Energy to clean up half of its coal ash sites. The bill represents a hard-fought compromise between the state legislature and the Governor, who had vetoed previous clean-up legislation as well as disbanding a coal ash committee earlier this year. This resolution isn’t a perfect solution to the state’s coal ash problems, but it may be the best that can be done while Governor McCrory remains in office. This blog post will briefly examine the problems with the 14 coal ash sites in North Carolina, and then look at the failed clean-up attempts as well as the bill that was recently signed.


Copyright 2014 Becki Gray


Duke Energy has been operating coal-fired power plants in North Carolina for the better part of 6 decades. The company operates a total of 26 coal plants in six different states, and 14 of these plants are in North Carolina (see the above map). The combustion of coal results in two forms of ash: fly ash and bottom ash. Both of these types of ash must either be stored dry in a landfill, or in water in ash basins (read more about Duke Energy’s coal plants and ash management here – http://www.duke-energy.com/pdfs/duke-energy-ash-basins-fleetwide.pdf). In recent years, studies have begun to question the environmental effects of storing coal ash in basins. These studies are beginning to find that water can leach from these ponds and contaminate aquifers in the area, resulting in toxic drinking water for local residents. Groundwater samples taken in areas surrounding coal ash ponds have been found to have mercury, arsenic, chromium, and other hazardous metals. In addition, on February 2 2014, coal ash from a pond in Eden spilled into the Dan River, contaminating 70 miles of the river with 39,000 tons of coal ash. The picture below shows the aftermath of the spill.


Copyright 2014 Waterkeeper Alliance


Since this incident in 2014, lawmakers, local NC residents, Duke Energy, and Governor McCrory have been locked in a struggle to decide how the clean-up of these toxic coal ash ponds will be handled. It often has seemed as if the NC residents and lawmakers were on one side (in favor of immediately excavating and cleaning over 30 coal ash sites), and McCrory and Duke Energy were on the other side. McCrory and lawmakers have struggled over who has the authority to handle this problem, and have actually gone to court over it. You would think that the man who was elected to serve the interests of North Carolina residents would be all for cleaning up toxic coal ash that is contaminating the drinking water of North Carolina… but you would be wrong. In entirely unrelated news, Governor Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years before becoming governor.

In the aftermath of the Dan River spill, the General Assembly passed a law requiring Duke Energy to close all of its coal ash ponds by 2029. But questions remained about the handling of the cleanup – were North Carolina residents living near these coal ash ponds supposed to deal with contaminated drinking water for 13 more years? In response, lawmakers pursued further legislation to speed up the timeline and protect the health of residents. Later in 2014, the North Carolina Coal Ash Management Commission was formed to oversee the closing of coal ash ponds. However, McCrory challenged the constitutionality of this commission by claiming that the legislature overstepped their roles and placed unconstitutional limits on his executive power. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in McCrory’s favor in January 2015, and he suddenly disbanded the commission in early March 2016.


Copyright 2014 John Cole


Then, in June of this year, Senate Bill 71 reached McCrory’s desk. The bill sought to reestablish the Coal Ash Management Commission, as well as force Duke Energy to pay for filtration systems and municipal water connections for 900 homes located near coal ash sites. The bill had broad bipartisan support, but the Governor vetoed it on June 6th. Duke Energy was even mystified by the decision, stating in a press release: “We don’t understand why the Governor would veto a bill that makes North Carolina’s Coal Ash law even stronger. Very importantly, it reconstitutes a Commission that will evaluate the safety and cost of any closure plan on customers.”

Finally, on July 15th, McCrory signed off on House Bill 630. The bill will require Duke Energy to clean up coal ash at seven of its fourteen sites, using a strategy called “cap in place.” This means that the ponds would be drained of water and capped, instead of excavating and removing the hazardous coal ash. Duke Energy will also be required to provide clean drinking water to plant neighbors by 2018. While this bill is a good place to start, many residents are still worried. Because Duke is not being required to remove the hazardous waste, some people worry that the toxic chemicals will still be able to contaminate drinking water. Critics of the bill say that it is unfair for Duke Energy to avoid $10 billion in costs to excavate ash from the more than 30 ponds. It also seems unfair for the seven sites’ residents located near coal ash sites that will not be cleaned up immediately.

It seems like common sense to just clean up the coal ash sites permanently, regardless of the cost. However, politics and Governor McCrory stand in the way of doing what is right for the environment. It may seem way out of reach for an ordinary citizen like you or me to make a difference in this problem. But one huge thing can (and should) be done – vote for Roy Cooper (or anyone but Pat) for Governor on November 8th.



Burns, M., 9 February 2016, Two years later, NC fines Duke for coal ash spill, WRAL, http://www.wral.com/two-years-later-nc-fines-duke-for-coal-ash-spill/15342212/

Chatlani, S., 19 July 2016, North Carolina Gov. McCrory signs compromise coal ash cleanup bill, UtilityDive, http://www.utilitydive.com/news/north-carolina-gov-mccrory-signs-compromise-coal-ash-cleanup-bill/422876/

Chatlani, S., 7 June 2016, North Carolina Gov. McCrory vetoes coal ash bill, UtilityDive, http://www.utilitydive.com/news/north-carolina-gov-mccrory-vetoes-coal-ash-bill/420478/

Chatlani, S., 21 March 2016, North Carolina coal ash commission abruptly shuts down, UtilityDive, http://www.utilitydive.com/news/north-carolina-coal-ash-commission-abruptly-shuts-down/415926/

Duke Energy, 30 September 2014, Duke Energy Coal Plants and Ash Basins, Duke Energy, http://www.duke-energy.com/pdfs/duke-energy-ash-basins-fleetwide.pdf

Gronewold, A., Dalesio, E., 18 July 2016, North Carolina Governor Signs Duke Energy Coal Ash Cleanup Compromise, Insurance Journal, http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/southeast/2016/07/18/420340.htm

Tiberii, J., 29 June 2016, Lawmakers Compromise on Coal Ash Regulation, WUNC, http://wunc.org/post/lawmakers-compromise-coal-ash-regulation

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