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How did DEQ develop the proposed classifications?

Thursday, May 26, 2016 - 12:00am

The N.C Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has released proposed classifications for the closure of all coal ash ponds in North Carolina. The classifications are based on the current risk each pond presents to public health and the environment and are the culmination of more than two years of scientific evaluation. 

In accordance with the coal ash law, DEQ gathered and analyzed comprehensive data about coal ash facilities statewide.  That information has been essential in the classification process for all 14 facilities with coal ash storage ponds. 

Soon after Duke Energy’s coal ash spill in 2014, the environmental department’s dam safety program inspected each Duke Energy coal ash impoundment and reviewed video of their dam piping systems. The state program identified 63 areas of concern at 30 coal ash impoundments and directed Duke to provide repair plans.

In August 2015, Duke Energy began submitting to the environmental department Comprehensive Site Assessments (CSAs) for each coal ash facility in accordance with Governor McCrory’s Executive Order 62 and the coal ash law. These reports detailed site conditions around all 14 coal ash facilities and were in excess of 5,000 pages each. Supplemental information was provided by the utility through Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) that were submitted in two parts from November 2015 through March 2016. The reports included information about each facility’s impact on groundwater gathered through Duke Energy’s installation of more than 1,000 new monitoring wells. In 2015, the environmental department oversaw the testing of nearly 400 public and private drinking water wells that were within 1,500 feet of a coal ash facility.

After reviewing the CSAs and CAPs, DEQ requested additional information from Duke Energy in December 2015 in order to fill multiple data gaps and deficiencies. The utility continues to provide the state new supplemental scientific data and information. 

DEQ released in December 2015 its draft proposed classifications for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments.  The draft proposal included the eight impoundments designated high priority by the coal ash law, 12 intermediate, eight low to intermediate, and four low. In March 2016, DEQ conducted a robust public process with a public comment period and meeting in each county where a coal ash facility is located. The information gathered through the public participation process was considered in the development of the department’s proposed classifications released May 18.  

The installation of a permanent alternative water supply would eliminate any potential future risk even though the residents’ well water currently meets federal requirements for safe drinking water. Duke Energy on May 17 submitted a study that evaluates the feasibility of supplying permanent alternative water to nearby residents.

Dam safety is another risk factor that could be greatly reduced.  Although no dams present an imminent risk to life or property, a number of ponds were rated intermediate because of unfinished repairs. DEQ will use their existing legal authority to ensure those repairs are completed by the end of this year.

The proposed classifications released May 18 are based on the department’s current understanding of the risk each pond presents to public health and the environment. The proposal includes the eight impoundments classified high priority by the coal ash law and classified 25 impoundments as intermediate. Under the law, all ponds classified as intermediate or high must be dug up and safely closed.

DEQ does recognize that work that is already either planned or underway could significantly reduce the risk posed by the ponds and is asking the General Assembly to allow reconsideration of the intermediate classifications in 18 months.

Making decisions based on incomplete information that could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when less expensive options would provide equal or better protection. The state environmental department is committed to finding the best solution that protects our citizens’ health, protects the environment and keeps electricity rates affordable for businesses and homeowners.