State issues permit to drain coal ash ponds

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Environmentalists are challenging in court a surprise deal in which North Carolina regulators settle decades of suspected groundwater pollution at Duke Energy's coal ash pits for $7 million.

A state Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments Friday as opponents seek to overturn the deal between Gov. Pat McCrory's former employer and the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The deal cut the $25 million fine over groundwater pollution at a Wilmington plant that regulators had promoted as the largest penalty for environmental damage in state history. The agreement also claimed to settle groundwater pollution claims at not one, but all 14 power plants storing coal ash.

Duke Energy and environmental regulators pointed to a 2011 policy that favored correcting groundwater problems over fines as prompting the settlement.

For the first time North Carolina state officials received approval from the federal government to issue a critical permit, which provides for the safe removal of water from coal ash ponds in preparation of closure, according to the NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources.

“The permit issued today is the most stringent in the nation in regulating the safe closure of coal ash ponds,” said Donald R. van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental agency. “State regulators are ensuring the environmentally responsible closure of all coal ash ponds throughout North Carolina through strict oversight and regulation of closure activities.”

The permit is issued for Duke Energy's Riverbend Steam Station in Mt. Holly. State regulators want to use this permit as a template for the permanent closure of coal ash ponds at other facilities.

The NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources says North Carolina's coal ash law requires that impoundments at Duke Energy’s Sutton, Asheville, Riverbend and Dan River facilities be permanently closed by Aug. 1, 2019. The remaining 10 sites will be prioritized for closure based on the level of risk they present to the environment and public health, with all coal ash ponds and discharges from those ponds eliminated no later than 2029.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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