Duke Energy must excavate its final nine coal ash impoundments at six plants, state environmental regulators announced today, overruling the utility’s concerns that the method would be too expensive and environmentally risky.
“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan in a prepared statement. “Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper administration.”
Duke had proposed to either cap the material in place — in leaking, unlined landfills — or to develop a “hybrid” of excavation and cap-in-place. At public meetings across the state, residents demanded that DEQ force the utility to fully excavate all of the material and place it in a lined landfill.
The nine impoundments are spread over six plants:
Belews Creek (Stokes County ) 1
Marshall (Catawba County) 1
Mayo (Person County) 1
Allen (Gaston County) 2
Roxboro (Person County) 2
Cliffside/Rogers (Cleveland/Rutherford counties) 2
Duke Energy issued a statement in response to the announcement noting the utility was making strong progress to permanently close every ash basin in North Carolina:
With respect to the final six sites—which NCDEQ has ruled are low-risk—science and engineering support a variety of closure methods including capping in place and hybrid cap-in-place as appropriate solutions that all protect public health and the environment. These closure options are also consistent with how hundreds of other basins around the country are expected to be closed.
Excavation at some sites will take decades, stretching well beyond the current state and federal deadlines.
Based on current estimates and closure timeframes, excavating these basins will add approximately $4 billion to $5 billion to the current estimate of $5.6 billion for the Carolinas.
Frank Holleman , senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, called DEQ’s decision, “one of the most important statements in our state’s history. It’s refreshing that we have a DEQ and a governor putting the public interest and clean water first, even in the face of a very powerful corporation.”
These final six plants are in addition to eight that Duke has agreed to excavate or has completed excavation. SELC had sued Duke Energy over its coal ash disposal methods, compelling the utility to excavate its impoundments at the other eight North Carolina plants.
Duke must submit final excavation closure plans to DEQ by Aug. 1. Those plans must include potential locations for the coal ash and an estimated timeline. Duke can also propose to recycle the ash, such as for use in concrete, also known as beneficiation. 
In beneficiation, fly ash is burned in a special reactor. The material is then captured in a “bag house” and stored in a silo or dome before trucks carry it offsite. State air permits are required for all phases of the process.
Passed and amended by the legislature, the Coal Ash Management Act requires Duke to identify three plants for beneficiation. The utility has selected HF Lee in Wayne County, the former Cape Fear plant in Chatham County and Buck in Rowan County.
After Duke submits its closure plans, DEQ will hold public meetings in the counties where each site is located, and open a public comment period.
By Dec. 1, Duke must submit clean up plans to address groundwater contamination , the result of the leaking impoundments at all six sites.
Federally mandated well monitoring showed groundwater beneath all of Duke Energy’s coal ash plants, even those that have been retired, is contaminated. Marshall and Cliffside contained high levels of at least 10 chemicals, including thallium, cobalt and chromium. Results at Allen showed exceedances of several chemicals, including beryllium; Roxboro’s contamination included elevated concentrations of arsenic.
Environmental groups and affected neighbors quickly applauded the decision.
NC Conservation Network Executive Director Brian Buzby praised the state’s decision to move ash out of harm’s way:
“Thank you to Gov. Cooper and Sec. Regan for listening to the communities most impacted by Duke Energy’s poor management of coal ash,” said Buzby. “Excavating ash into less vulnerable spaces will protect North Carolina rivers and hopefully bring some peace to the families who have spent years fighting for their right to clean water. Five years have passed since the Dan River coal ash spill, and we have seen Virginia and South Carolina move toward cleaning up all coal ash in their states – so it is long overdue for Duke Energy to do the same here.”
Dave Rogers of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign said, “This is great news for communities who have been harmed by decades of Duke’s admitted negligence  in handling coal ash. We’re glad Gov. Cooper is upholding his promise  to protect our drinking water and our health from this toxic waste. The debate about how to deal with Duke Energy’s coal ash mess should be over. Duke owes it to our communities to clean up its toxic mess and not try to force customers to foot the bill for it. And Duke also needs to stop making the problem worse by continuing to burn dirty, climate-disrupting coal and fracked gas.
“Our communities have long demanded, and deserve, a transition away from dangerous fossil fuels toward an equitable, clean energy economy powered by safe, abundant wind and solar, and bolstered by robust energy efficiency—all of which would create new jobs and protect our public health. Making sure Duke finally cleans up the mess it made is a critical step in the right direction.”
The NC League of Conservation Voters commented:
“We are thrilled that Gov. Cooper has sided with North Carolinians who for years have spoken loud and clear that Duke Energy must clean up its coal ash mess. With decisions like today’s, the governor continues to prove why he earned an ‘A’ in our latest scorecard  for his environmental leadership over the last two years. He has used his authority to strengthen public health protections which benefit all North Carolinians, particularly those most victimized by corporate polluters.
Moving toxic coal ash away from drinking water sources used by hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians is a common-sense move. That’s why Duke was already required to fully excavate eight of its other coal ash dumps, and there was no reason to not do the same for these nine. It’s what the people wanted, and it’s what science and justice demanded.”
Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League: “This is great news for the communities that have been impacted by Duke Energy’s coal ash. It also presents an opportunity for North Carolina to have a conversation about just disposition of of this dangerous byproduct. Historical precedent indicates that rural low-wealth counties and communities of color will be targeted for mega coal ash landfills. Creating new toxic sites and victimizing more communities is not the answer.”