- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A state regulator told lawmakers Wednesday that groundwater monitoring beneath Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash sites and testing of hundreds of nearby wells are key to safeguarding the public’s health and determining which ash pits must be cleaned up quickly.

Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder joined other state regulators and a Duke Energy executive appearing before a legislative commission to discuss what’s happened since the passage of a law in August directing that more than 30 ash dumps be capped or removed by 2029.

The law demands coal ash dumps at four specific sites must be closed by August 2019. And last month the utility followed up on an executive order by Gov. Pat McCrory and submitted its proposed ash excavation plans for those sites to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Coal ash is the residue left from burning coal to operate electric power plants. The utility has collected the ash for decades in pits covered in water, or in dry mounds. The emphasis on cleanup accelerated after a spill last February into the Dan River at a Duke Energy coal ash site in Eden. Coal ash contains numerous heavy metals that can be dangerous in large amounts.

As soon as the end of this week, the Division of Water Resources will write owners of more than 330 wells, most within 1,000 feet of coal ash site boundaries, and tell them how they can have their wells tested for free. The tests are being paid for by Duke but performed by firms unrelated to the utility or picked by the local resident, Reeder told the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission.

If well tests show the presence of metals beyond what is expected, the Department of Health and Human Services will perform a health risk assessment for the well owners, Reeder said.

Following the four sites mandated in the law, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources must recommend to the newly formed Coal Ash Management Commission how to prioritize moving or capping the remaining ponds. The commission will have the final say on the priority list, with the first proposals released from the department by Dec. 31, 2015.

Michael Jacobs, chairman of the coal ash commission, told lawmakers that the panel’s decisions will be based on “science, economics and safety. It’s not about politics.”

In October, Duke Energy filed groundwater management plans designed to determine the extent of contamination underground and beyond the dumps’ compliance boundaries. The utility is now updating the plans, which include groundwater monitoring wells, and will return them to regulators by the end of the month.

It’s virtually impossible to make priority recommendations without data derived from the plans, Reeder said.

“We know we have some level of contamination at all 14 facilities, but how far that contamination is spread how deep it’s spread, we have no idea at all,” Reeder said.

The excavation plans for the four sites - the Asheville, Riverbend, Dan River and Sutton plants - call for the ash to be transported by truck or train to landfills, cement plants or structural fill for an Asheville Regional Airport runway, which is already occurring. On-site landfills are also proposed for some.

With more than 151 million tons of ash stored in ponds or out of ponds at 14 plants, Duke Energy remains concerned about meeting deadlines set out in the legislation.

John Elnitsky, Duke Energy’s senior vice president for ash basin strategy, said the utility is anxious to start moving ash.

“We need to start work, we need to see what type of production rates we’re going to be able to achieve,” he said.

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