A North Carolina county judge ruled Thursday that Duke Energy must immediately act to stop groundwater contamination coming from its 14 coal-fired power plants in the state.
The ruling, issued by Judge Paul Ridgeway, directs Duke to come up with a plan to clean up sites that have been contaminated by leaking coal ash ponds, reversing a 2012 North Carolina Environmental Management Commission ruling that Duke wasn’t required to immediately clean up contaminated groundwater from its operations. That ruling was contested by multiple environmental groups more than a year ago, but the new ruling comes just over a month after about 35 million gallons of coal ash from a Duke Energy coal ash basin spilled into the Dan River.
“The ruling leaves no doubt, Duke Energy is past due on its obligation to eliminate the sources of groundwater contamination, its unlined coal ash pits, and the State has both the authority and a duty to require action now,” D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “This ruling enforces a common-sense requirement in existing law – before you can clean up contaminated groundwater, you first must stop the source of the contamination- in this case, Duke’s unlined coal ash pits.”
According to the SELC, data collected over the years clearly shows that coal-fired power plants have caused groundwater contamination in the state, but until now, the state had maintained that it couldn’t take action against Duke until it figured out the extent of the pollution.
“Arsenic has been detected at levels exceeding legal standards in the groundwater at the Dan River plant at every sampling event since January 2011,” Pete Harrison, a staff attorney at the Waterkeeper Alliance said. “If the state had exercised its authority to require cleanup of those ponds previously, the catastrophic February 2014 coal ash spill could have been prevented. The time to use this authority to require cleanup at other plants around the state is now, before another disaster occurs.”
The SELC also says that most of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds are aging — some have been in operation for as long as 50 years. Gerken told the Charlotte Observer that the only solution he knows of for halting pollution from the ponds is to move the ash from the ponds into lined landfills.
Duke’s environmental citations have piled up in the weeks after the Dan River spill. This week, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cited five Duke Energy power plants for not having storm water permits, citations that came a few days after two other power plants were cited for the same reason. Gov. Pat McCrory has pressured Duke to clean up the spill, giving the utility until March 15 to submit clean-up plans to the state, and has also said he wants Duke Energy to remove coal ash from all holding ponds that sit on water sources.