By Pam Danz-It was reported in another local newspaper on March 21 that a deal between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources that would have let Duke Energy dodge the expensive cleanup of the recent Dan River ash spill by paying a $99,000 fine fell through and that the Department stated on Friday that it will instead work with the EPA to resolve the violations. The proposed settlement was initially tabled last month, after an Associated Press story highlighted what environmentalists criticized as a “sweetheart deal” for Duke Energy.
But the brouhaha seems to be calming down. The report of cooperation with the EPA had been preceded by a March 12 letter from Duke Energy President and CEO Lynn J. Good with a sensible set of proposals for Governor Pat McCrory and Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources John Skvarla . The proposals included the following possible action items:
•Permanently close the Dan River ash ponds and move ash away from the river to a lined structural fill solution or a lined landfill. This work will be started immediately upon securing the appropriate fill solution or landfill location and any necessary permits, with an expected completion thereafter of 24-30 months.
•Accelerate planning and closure of the Sutton ash ponds to include evaluation of possible lined structural fill solutions and other options. A conceptual closure plan will be submitted to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) within six months, and removing the water from the ash basins will be completed in the next 18-24 months.
•Move all ash from Riverbend away from the river to a lined structural fill solution or a lined landfill. Work will begin immediately upon securing the appropriate fill solution or landfill location and any necessary permits, with an expected completion thereafter within 48-54 months.
•Continue moving ash from the Asheville plant to a lined structural fill solution. We continue to look for ash reuse opportunities where such uses remain permissible under the upcoming coal ash regulations.
•Convert the three remaining North Carolina units to dry fly ash (Cliffside 5 and both Asheville units) or retire the units. Conversion work, if selected, will be completed within 30-36 months of receiving permits.
•Minimize the potential risk of a discharge similar to Dan River by accelerating the removal of water from the ash ponds at all retired coal plants. Upon receipt of permits, dewatering will be completed within 24-36 months.
The NC Utility Commission will decide what kind of remediation steps need to be taken to prevent future spills. The cost depends on which approach is taken. Simplified, the options are: creating new lined landfills, continuing to use the coal ash for construction fill as it has been used in the recent expansion of the Asheville Airport, and leaving the ash in place but making sure it is dried out so it will not spill.
In speaking with NC House Representative Chris Whitmire on Saturday it became clear that there is a great deal of information like the above about the eight Duke Power coal ash spills in North Carolina that is being lost amidst the finger pointing in the media. The controversy all began Feb. 2 when an old storm water pipe running under a 27-acre coal ash dump at Duke’s old Dan River Steam Station in Eden collapsed and ash sludge poured into the Dan River. Environmental groups have been acting as watch dogs and generating law suits ever since. When winnowed down, however, the information most taxpayers want is, “Who will pay for the clean-up?”
Whitmire said, “Deciding who will pay for the clean-up is an intricate problem.” The possible sources of funds to pay for the clean-up are rate payers, stockholders, and taxpayers. There also might be fines paid out of Duke’s reserve funds. “The issue is being debated in the State Environmental Review Committee.”
The good news that Duke Energy is now facing up to its environmental responsibilities was confirmed on Monday by Duke Energy Spokesperson Dave Scanzoni who said that there are two different areas of responsibility inherent in the coal ash pit issue. Scanzoni explained that Duke Energy expects the environmental cleanup of the Dan River spill to be borne by Duke Energy shareholders, but the cost of retrofitting the 33 statewide ash basins in our state will most probably be the responsibility of the rate payers.
No doubt Duke Energy shareholders can afford to pay for the Dan River spill. The shareholders might receive a smaller dividend over the next few years though. Dividends of over $550 million per quarter have been going out to the business owners (shareholders) who have profited while Duke Energy has ignored the threat their coal ash pits have been to the environment. Duke sees the retrofits as a cost of doing business currently. Coal is burned to ash in order to make electricity and the ash must be dealt with. Duke Energy expects the people who are using the electricity to pay for it. The Public Utilities Commission will rule on any rate changes.