LUMBERTON — The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has determined that some people and property downstream from the coal ash ponds at Duke Energy’s deactivated Weatherspoon plant are in a “high-hazard” area.
The updated classification of the two dams at the coal ash ponds was announced Wednesday as four conservation groups, in a separate action, filed lawsuits against Duke over conditions surrounding three other coal ash sites.
Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said Thursday that the state’s classification of the dams in Lumberton was raised after Duke provided his agency with requested emergency action plans that showed a failure of either dam could put residents and property downstream at risk.
“We changed our classification after information provided us by Duke showed that there are four homes directly down stream from the two impoundments and that if there was a breach in either dam individuals and property could be endangered,” Kritzer said.
Kritzer said that he did not know exactly how far the homes are from the coal ash ponds or how many people live in them.
The state requested the emergency action plans of all Duke’s 14 sites across the state where there are coal ash impoundments as part of its ongoing efforts to address coal ash management after the Feb. 2 spill at the Dan River steam plant near Eden. At that time, nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled, resulting in miles of the Dan River becoming coated with sludge.
According to Kritzer, the state will now keep a closer eye at the Weatherspoon facility.
“The inspections will be made more frequently,” he said.
State inspectors found issues that needed to be addressed at the Weatherspoon site earlier this year. They included problems with pipes making up the drainage systems of the dams.
Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy spokesman, said Thursday that the state’s decision to up the hazard classification at Weatherspoon had nothing to do with the conditions of the dams nor their “integrity.” He said that Duke is committed to closing its 33 ash basins in North Carolina in a way that’s “fact-based and environmentally sound.”
Brooks said that state legislation waiting to be signed into law by the governor will regulate how soon and in what manner Duke must proceed in closing its ash ponds. He noted that since Duke retired the Weatherspoon plant in 2011 and demolished the facility in November of last year, the site is no longer receiving any coal ash.
“Just closure is involved,” Brooks said. “We just have to determine the best way to remove the ash.”
Brooks said that Duke is evaluating the new state legislation that will require the company to “adapt” its plans for closing all of its North Carolina ash ponds.
“There will be a lot of sampling, engineering and monitoring done to come up with the best means of closure,” he said. “We’re moving forward, but it’s going to take some time.”
On Wednesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed three federal coal ash-related lawsuits under the Clean Water Act on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance. These suits target coal ash issues at Duke facilities on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Yadkin rivers.