Image of coal fired steam station on Belews Lake, North Carolina, via Shutterstock Image of coal fired steam station on Belews Lake, North Carolina, via Shutterstock

In a historic agreement announced on Thursday, Duke Energy has agreed to close its remaining coal ash ponds in the state.

After nine years of debate, a toxic waste spill, and a number of investigations, environmental groups and North Carolina regulators reached an agreement with Duke Energy this week to close coal ash storage sites at six facilities in the state. 

Officials say it’s the largest coal ash cleanup in U.S. history.

According to a press release from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), nearly 80 million tons of coal ash—the powdery substance left after burning coal—will be excavated from the open, unlined water ponds that utilities have used for decades to store the hazardous waste. The material is known to contain arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, and other toxic heavy metals.

Federally mandated testing has shown that these water pits are unsecure; as a result, toxins can leak into nearby groundwater, potentially contaminating residents’ drinking water. 

“North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in the release that came out Thursday. “They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year. We are holding Duke accountable and will continue to hold them accountable for their actions as we protect public health, the environment and our natural resources.”

According to the settlement signed Dec. 31, Duke Energy expects to have all of its basins closed by the end of 2037, moving the coal ash stored at its Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside, Marshall, Mayo, and Roxboro facilities into dry landfills that are appropriately lined. The utility is responsible for other protective measures as well, including stabilizing and monitoring existing landfills where coal ash is currently stored. 

“This cleanup is a monumental win for all North Carolinians, particularly the millions who live near and drink the water threatened by coal ash,” Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones told COURIER. The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, which works to protect the Catawba River, was one of the groups that initiated the litigation. Two of the six storage sites, the Marshall site on Lake Norman and the Allen site on Lake Wylie, are located in the Catawba Basin.

Brandon said that by requiring the excavation of coal ash from unlined pits, North Carolina is following in the footsteps of South Carolina and Virginia. “This settlement,” he added, “will likely put pressure on other states as their citizens seek similar protections from pollution.”

“This cleanup is a monumental win for all North Carolinians, particularly the millions who live near and drink the water threatened by coal ash.”

The historic agreement comes nearly six years after a waste pond at Duke Energy’s coal plant in Eden spilled more than 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, a drinking source for communities in both North Carolina and Virginia. It took six days for workers to repair the broken pipe that caused the spill. In 2015, Duke Energy pled guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, and was forced to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.  

Last year, researchers also found evidence that an eastern North Carolina lake may have been the site of “multiple coal ash spills” from nearby storage sites, and that, according to a release highlighting their findings, most of them had apparently gone “unmonitored and unreported until now.”  

“What’s happened at Sutton Lake highlights the risk of large-scale unmonitored spills occurring at coal ash storage sites nationwide,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a statement. “This is particularly true in the Southeast where we see many major land-falling tropical storms and have a large number of coal ash impoundments located in areas vulnerable to flooding.”

Based on industry data analyzed by environmental law organization Earthjustice, more than 95% of coal ash ponds in the country are unlined. The nonprofit has also documented 24 sites throughout the U.S., including three in North Carolina, where contaminants such as arsenic and cobalt have been found in private drinking water wells near coal ash storage sites. 

Instead of holding utilities accountable for how they dispose of this hazardous material, however, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it intends to actually roll back federal regulations installed during the Obama administration. 

“The people living around these plants are just screwed,” Betsy Southerland, a former senior EPA employee who helped develop the 2015 rule, told The Hill.