May 18--A coal ash pond in Robeson County and five in Chatham County are scheduled to be closed by 2024, state officials said Wednesday.
Residents who live near the ponds had asked that they be closed sooner.
The state Department of Environmental Quality released proposed classifications for 25 coal ash sites around the state. The classifications determine when the sites will be closed.
State officials said in a statement that work either planned or already underway at some sites could change the risk posed by the coal ash ponds. They are asking lawmakers to give them the opportunity to reconsider the classifications in 18 months.
State officials said the classifications are based on the current risk that each pond poses to public health and the environment.
All 25 sites, including the ones in Robeson and Chatham counties, will be classified as intermediate risks, which sets them for closure by 2024, according to a statement from state environmental officials. Eight other sites were mandated by state law as high risk and will be closed by 2019.
The classifications will become final in 60 days.
At a public hearing in March, four speakers pleaded for Duke Energy's former Weatherspoon power plant in Robeson County to be closed and cleared of coal ash before 2024. At a similar meeting in Pittsboro that month, residents who live near the Chatham County coal ash ponds and environmental activists urged state officials to make Duke Energy clean up that site sooner.
Environmental activists say about a half million people, including Fayetteville residents, get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River, which flows by the Chatham County site.
Donald R. van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental department, said in the statement that deadlines in the coal ash law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed.
"It also does not allow for revisions to the classifications based on new information about a pond's risk to public health and the environment," he said.
Duke Energy released a statement saying that the coal ash sites should be given rankings of low. That classification would mean that the ponds wouldn't have to be closed until 2029.
Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a conference call with reporters that removing water from the ponds and putting a cap over them might be the best option. Low rankings are supported by science and engineering, she said.
Good said Duke Energy is considering options to make sure residents around the sites are satisfied with their water quality. Extending municipal water lines is under consideration, she said.
The N.C. Sierra Club released a statement saying it was pleased that no sites were listed as low priority, but expressed concern about the request to reconsider the classifications in 18 months.
Molly Diggins, director of the N.C. Sierra Club, said the move appears to be a request for unilateral decision making.
"It's unclear what oversight or public input there will be if these classifications can be revisited immediately before the deadline for closure plans," she said. "This is exactly what the legislature sought to avoid when drafting the Coal Ash Management Act."
Staff writer Steve DeVane can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3572.
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