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Originally published: 2014-03-08 15:52:52
Last modified: 2014-03-08 15:53:38

Judge: Duke must clean up coal ponds

by Anna Oakes

Duke Energy must take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination that are currently violating water quality standards at its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, a Wake County judge ruled March 6.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found that Duke's coal ash retention ponds -- most of which are unlined, and some up to 50 years old -- are leaching harmful chemicals into the soil and groundwater, including arsenic and selenium.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said the judge's ruling also confirms that DENR has the legal authority to require clean up of the electric power company's coal ponds. The state had asserted in the past that it lacked the legal power to require Duke to remove ash from the ponds, according to the SELC.

"If the state had exercised its authority to require clean up of those ponds previously, the catastrophic February 2014 coal ash spill could have been prevented," said Pete Harrison of the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, in a statement. "The time to use this authority to require cleanup at other plants around the state is now, before another disaster occurs."  

In a statement, DENR said its interpretation of the law was based on a 2012 Environmental Management Commission decision "made under the (former Gov. Bev) Perdue administration." The state agency said it is reviewing the court's ruling.

Since the Feb. 2 discovery of a pipe breakage that leaked more than 30,000 tons of coal ash from a retention pond into the Dan River in Eden, DENR has cited Duke with a number of violations at the Dan River plant and other coal plants across the state. Violations include corroded pipes, a lack of vegetation to prevent dam erosion, failure to apply for stormwater permits and failure to properly use or dispose of solids.

DENR has also sued Duke over groundwater contamination at its 14 coal plants in North Carolina.

Duke, the largest electric utility in the nation, has pledged to clean up the Dan River spill.

"We will do the right thing for the river and surrounding communities. We are accountable," Duke President Paul Newton said in a statement.