COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) told state regulators Tuesday it plans to remove coal ash from one of its South Carolina waste pits and close two more at a power station that environmentalists say threatens the Saluda River.
Environmentalists said the plan was a good first step, but didn't go far enough because it leaves in place two "unsafe" dams at the W.S. Lee Power Station.
"The dam issues at Lee are urgent and require quick, direct action," said Frank Holleman, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has filed several lawsuits to force Duke to clean up the Charlotte-based utility's coal ash pits.
Duke requested the meeting with the Public Service Commission to update the agency on the company's "coal ash management activities" in the state, said Mike Ruhe, the company's environmental policy affairs director.
The regulators can review Duke's rates and operations in the state, but approval of any plans on what to do with the ash pits would fall to the state's environmental agency.
Duke has ash pits at two power plants in the state. The Lee plant, which is set to convert to natural gas within a year, has three unlined pits - two that are still in operation and one that was closed in the early 1970s. The other is at an already closed plant in Darlington County where the as pit has dried up.
He said Duke will move waste from the site's inactive dump to a lined pit. The company also plans to close the two remaining dumps, but is still studying the options. Duke will submit those plans to the state by the end of the year.
"First and foremost, Duke Energy remains committed to the safe operation and ultimate closure of all our ash management units and we are aggressively moving in that direction," Ruhe told the commission. "Closure is complex and the situation at each of our sites is very different."
Duke decided to inspect all its ash pits after a coal ash spill at the utility's Eden, North Carolina plant in February coated more than 70-miles of the Dan River in gray muck.
The utility is moving waste from the inactive pit to a lined one because of the site's close proximity to the river. He also said the company has identified some safety concerns with the earthen dams that hold back million tons of waste.
Coal ash contains numerous chemicals that are toxic to humans and wildlife, including arsenic, lead, chromium and thallium.
Ruhe assured the commission that coal ash doesn't pose a public health risk.
"Toxicity is dose dependent," Ruhl said, adding that any plan to close the dumps would have to be "protective of the groundwater."
Commission member Elizabeth Fleming honed in on that point.
She asked if coal ash wasn't dangerous, why would Duke be worried about protecting groundwater?
"Could you talk a little bit about what the dangers really are?" she asked.
Ruhe hesitated. "There's a lot of controversy in the press about that," he said, adding that the Dan River has "turned back to its natural state" - a claim has been challenged by environmentalists.
She pressed him with several follow up questions. Again, he said coal ash is not toxic but Duke wanted to make sure there's "nothing that would leach into the groundwater."
"I don't know if you understood my question...What happens if it does leach into the groundwater?" she said.
He responded they could see higher levels of contaminants in groundwater samples.
"Which could make it potentially unsafe to drink," she said
He said yes.