The Pine Hall Road Ash Landfill (foreground) sits on the banks of Belews Lake across Pine Hall Road from the Belews Creek Steam Station. Now closed, the wet ash disposal site is where Duke Power stored decades worth of the byproducts from the coal burning process at Belews Creek.

The decision to require Duke Energy to dig up, remove and dispose of all the coal ash near its Belews Creek Steam Station is a good one.

The ruling from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, announced Monday, was based on the potential impact to the environment, natural resources and public health, officials said. Those are the most important criteria on which to base a bottom line.

“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in announcing the decision.

Duke Energy had touted its “cap-in-place” technology, which would have left coal ash in lined containers at its current sites. But DEQ analysts concluded that it wasn’t safe enough for the sites under review.

The ruling applies not only to the Belews Creek site in Stokes County, along the Dan River, but also to plants near Belmont, Mooresville, Roxboro and Shelby.

This is “one of the most important steps in the state’s history to protect North Carolina and its citizens from toxic pollution,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center based in Chapel Hill. “It was obvious that in order to protect clean water and neighboring communities, Duke Energy needed to excavate all the coal ash from all the sites in this state.”

Coal ash, the residue left after burning coal to produce electricity, has been in the public eye since a February 2014 spill at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden released about 39,000 tons of stored ash into the Dan River. Though it’s not classified as a hazardous material, it contains trace elements of such chemicals as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium and vanadium that can threaten water quality, especially in the large quantities of ash that Duke Energy had amassed at 14 sites across North Carolina.

There’s been a circuitous route between that spill and Monday’s ruling that has included lawsuits (some of which are still pending), new laws passed (including one requiring Duke Energy to clean up and close all its coal ash basins by the end of 2029) and questions over who will pay for the cleanup, which Duke Energy now says could cost up to $10.5 billion.

DEQ’s Regan said Monday that any request to pass the cost on to Duke Energy’s customers would be reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office and the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Pricey Harrison from Greensboro filed several environmentally themed bills in the legislature, including one that would require Duke Energy to pay all the costs for cleanup.

“The Duke Energy — shareholders should pick up the cost of the cleanup,” Harrison told BH Media on Tuesday. “I think most rate payers feel that way.”

Harrison has filed similar bills for years with little interest from the legislature. Maybe now someone will pay attention.

Duke Energy has been aware of the problems with coal ash containment since at least 2014, if not sooner. The company has been responsive at times, but is also has fought to delay and deflect its cleanup responsibility. It could still challenge DEQ’s ruling.

But at this point it seems the company would only be delaying the inevitable — which also happens to be the right thing: paying for a cleanup process that would earn praise from environmentalists and trust from customers.

Duke says that removing the ash from storage basins at all of its current and former coal-fired plants “will take decades, stretching well beyond the current state and federal deadlines.”

Better start digging.

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