Citizens oppose state weakening of coal ash rules in N.C.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy spilled tons of coal ash and coal ash-polluted wastewater from its nearby unlined, leaking pit into the Dan River in 2014.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s proposal to dilute protections against Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution in the state is generating considerable opposition from citizens.

Prior to the closing of the public comment period, SELC submitted comments on behalf of its partners. These citizen groups from around the state object strongly to DEQ’s efforts to undermine federal coal ash regulations and the agency’s failure in the past to respond to citizen input concerning coal ash safeguards. 

Coal ash is the residue left over after coal is burned to generate electricity. It contains dangerous levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins. Coal-fired plants produce around 100 million tons of coal ash every year, most of which is stored in unlined, leaking lagoons near rivers.

In North Carolina, there has been ongoing pollution from Duke Energy’s unlined, leaking coal ash pits across the state and a major coal ash spill into the Dan River from a Duke Energy facility in 2014. In 2015, Duke Energy companies pleaded guilty 18 times to nine Clean Water Act crimes for their mishandling of coal ash at sites across North Carolina.

The comment letter submitted by SELC noted that Duke Energy could use the weakened regulations to avoid cleaning up the pollution that flows into groundwater and add layers of state bureaucratic hurdles for citizens seeking enforcement of federal regulatory standards.

“In short, these excuses for Duke Energy’s pollution and malfunctioning coal ash sites are subject to expensive wrangling and litigation, battles over interpretation, Duke Energy’s pressure, and political decision making,” wrote Frank Holleman, SELC senior attorney.

Citizen enforcement of the federal Coal Combustion Residuals Rule and Clean Water Act has been crucial in North Carolina to force Duke Energy action. The North Carolina environmental agency's new proposal could require citizens to go through time-consuming administrative hearings and state court appeals before getting to a stage where actual relief might be granted. That process could add years to citizens’ efforts, allowing pollution to continue unabated the entire time.

Citizens have made it abundantly clear they want firm deadlines for Duke Energy to take action to clean up pollution from its coal ash dump sites. Instead, this latest proposal represents a significant step backwards, creating opportunities for Duke Energy to delay cleanup and snarl citizen efforts in bureaucratic and legal complexities.

It is time for state environmental officials to listen to citizen input — and strengthen coal ash regulation, finally requiring Duke Energy to clean up its many messes.

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