East Lake Norman News

East Lake Norman News

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Duke Energy customers may get stuck with bill in new coal-ash cleanup twist


By John Sammon | Feb 13, 2020


A scientist and former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says he is surprised at Gov. Roy Cooper's turnaround by asking consumers to fund coal-ash cleanup in the state rather than shareholders of Duke Energy.

Coal ash is the residue left behind when mined coal is turned into energy.

“Govenor Cooper did a 180,” Donald van der Vaart told the Carolina Journal.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

Van der Vaart, a senior fellow at conservative think-tank the John Locke Foundation, told the publication that electrical provider Duke Energy was ordered to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash at six sites in North Carolina as part of a court settlement with the DEQ. The matter came to a head in 2014 when a North Carolina treatment facility owned by Duke accidentally spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

“There were two problems,” van der Vaart said. “The first was structural, lack of maintenance by Duke caused the leak. The second is the potential for groundwater contamination caused by storing coal ash in the ground.”

Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory gave the DEQ authority to tackle coal-ash cleanup. Six sites identified as low-risk could have been capped and drained at lower cost but the DEQ said they had to be excavated, van der Vaart explained.

“Duke had proposed draining most of them at less expense,” he said. “Duke has a duty to provide low-cost electricity. They filed suit against the DEQ.”

Van der Vaart says that environmental groups and their legal representatives wanted all the coal-ash sites dug up and removed. the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a suit against Duke Energy for the Dan River spill.

“There was a settlement that resulted in not all the ash sites being excavated,” van der Vaart said. “The settlement left 30 percent of the ash in the ground.”  

Van der Vaart says the cost of the cleanup during the McCrory administration was estimated at $4 billion. A newer estimate projects the cleanup to cost an estimated $9 billion and take 20 years to complete.

“The DEQ agreed to the [settlement] provisions, which will bring increased costs to [electricity] customers,” van der Vaart told the Journal. “Customers will see higher rates.”

Van der Vaart says the outcome is surprising given that Democratic Gov. Cooper was adamant the cost should be taken on by Duke shareholders and not its customers when he served as attorney general.

“They were pursuing legislation to prohibit those costs from being passed on to customers,” van der Vaart said. “There may be customer groups that could challenge the settlement in court.”

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