Federal rule key in coal ash cleanups

North Carolina’s Hyco Lake receives the warm water discharge from Duke Energy’s Roxboro power plant, making it a popular place for winter fishing. Roxboro’s toxin-laden, leaking coal ash pits are on the shores of the lake. (© North Carolina Sportsman)

After decades without regulation, and following two major coal ash pollution disasters, in late 2015 the federal government finally established minimum standards for coal ash sites. With the Southeast being home to the largest number of coal ash sites in the nation, this rule plays a key role in ensuring our region’s clean water.

Known as the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, it outlines how utilities must handle their legacy of leaky, unlined pits filled with toxins sitting next to our rivers and other waterways, including a requirement that utilities share closure plans for those pits.

SELC and our partners have identified a number of violations in these closure plans. In just the past few months, SELC has taken several actions under the rule in response to these inadequate closure plans:

  • filing suit in federal court over Duke Energy’s Mayo plant in North Carolina,
  • filing a notice of intent for Duke’s Roxboro plant, and
  • sending a warning letter to Tennessee Valley Authority concerning its Colbert plant in northern Alabama.

At each of these sites, millions of tons of toxin-laden coal ash are sitting in the groundwater and adjacent to waterways, yet the utilities overseeing them have either not indicated how they plan to close the pits, as required by the coal ash rule, or have shared plans that would close the pits without addressing ongoing pollution.

For instance, in November 2016, Duke Energy posted a public notice that it planned to leave over 6 million tons of coal ash at its Mayo plant in an unlined, leaking pit sitting in 70 feet of groundwater near Mayo Lake in northeastern North Carolina. And, at its nearby Roxboro facility, Duke Energy has more than 19 million tons of coal ash in two leaking, unlined pits on the banks of Hyco Lake and Sargents River. These pits leak and pollute groundwater, Sargents River, and Hyco Lake, which is popular for fishing and boating, and surrounded by homes. In both cases the utility proposed covering the pits, which does nothing to address their many leaks and groundwater contamination.

At TVA’s Colbert Plant, entire coal ash pits haven’t been mentioned in the utility’s closure plans, while others again would simply be capped, leaving the pollution in place to continue seeping into groundwater and the Tennessee River.

The violations by Duke Energy led to SELC filing suit on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association. The case is believed to be the first instance of citizen enforcement under the federal coal ash rule, a key provision that allows individuals or citizen groups to step in and enforce the law when state and federal officials fail to do so.

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