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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 dirty secret about coal is that it is neither as cheap or efficient an energy source as we once believed.

Coal fouls the air, promotes climate change and is both dangerous and unhealthy to extract through mining.

When burned to create steam to generate electricity, it also leaves behind a potentially toxic byproduct called coal ash.

The bill for those unsavory side effects inevitably was going to come due. And in 2014, it did. A breach at a Duke Energy “pond” that stored coal ash near Eden spilled 39,000 tons of the sludge into the Dan River.

In the aftermath, Duke Energy agreed to close its coal ash storage sites throughout North Carolina. The question was how.

Now, in a historic settlement announced on Jan. 2, Duke Energy has agreed to excavate the contents of most of its remaining open and unlined coal ash lagoons in the state and to put it instead in dry, lined landfills, where it is unlikely to contaminate groundwater.

In a few instances, coal ash will remain in previously permitted landfills — but with new protections added.

The 33-page agreement doesn’t involve the site near Eden. Most of the coal ash there was removed under a previous agreement.

But it does involve more than 76 million tons of coal ash at other sites and ends a bitter struggle.

To put it plainly, everybody wins.

As BH Media’s Taft Wireback reported, the settlement saves Duke Energy about $1.5 billion. The utility also avoids a long, expensive legal battle and will not have to remove coal ash that is buried in pits in Catawba and Person counties.

At the same time, the agreement provides peace of mind for environmentalists and communities near the affected sites. The settlement directly affects the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County and includes five other still-active or now-closed coal-fired plants in other parts of North Carolina.

Specifically, at the Belews Creek site, the agreement calls for Duke Energy to:

  • Extensively monitor the surface and groundwater near the plant for contamination.
  • Leave 100,000 tons of coal ash buried in a capped landfill near Belews Creek.
  • Recycle some of the coal ash, if the utility chooses, for industrial uses, such as making concrete.

Communities near the sites had been skeptical of Duke Energy’s assurances that capping coal ash pits in place was just as effective as moving the ash to dry, lined landfills. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented several community groups that had legally challenged those original plans.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality also had rightly taken a hard-line stance, ordering Duke Energy in 2019 to excavate the remaining ash.

Still to be settled, of course, is who pays for the cleanup.

A Duke Energy spokesman told NC Policy Watch: “At the appropriate time the company will seek permission from the North Carolina Utilities Commission to put these costs into rates.”

That means passing the costs to customers for the utility’s missteps, which understandably won’t sit well with many North Carolinians.

To be sure, the agreement is a welcome and significant milestone. But the debate is far from over.

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