The Southern Environmental Law Center says something is wrong with Duke Energy because we appealed an order by state regulators mandating how we are to close our remaining coal ash basins (column, “Duke Energy would rather fight than do what is right when it comes to coal ash,” June 30).

The order effectively would:

  • Provide a “one size fits all” requirement for closing basins, even though options exist that provide similar levels of protection.
  • Impose incremental costs — a severe $5 billion or more — on consumers and businesses.
  • Force residents and communities to needlessly endure closure operations that will last for decades.

Rather than debate the merits of basin closure based on facts and science, SELC is using misinformation and irrelevant information to advance its extreme environmental agenda.

Something is wrong here, but it’s not Duke Energy’s approach to dealing with coal ash in an environmentally responsible way or our decision to defend our customers.

The underlying issue is the long-term management of coal ash, a byproduct of decades of electricity generation. Notwithstanding SELC’s deflection, it has nothing to do with the Dan River accident in 2014, an event that was immediately remedied and paid for by Duke Energy, not its customers.

Today, dozens of utilities across the country are addressing the long-term management of coal ash, and in largely the same two ways: Excavating existing basins or capping them in place. Both methods are recognized by state and federal law.

Excavation does not always produce a better result, and often it will create an environmental impact where one does not exist. Duke Energy is proposing both methods, using science to direct the best environmental outcome at the least possible cost.

All of the company’s basins in North Carolina were created and exist under permits issued by state regulators, and the closure of many of these has been a great success story— even SELC would agree. But in April state regulators directed the full excavation of the last six sites, sites the very same regulators had previously designated as “low risk.” This decision is not supported by the facts or independent engineering, and it left the company no option but to file an appeal.

SELC points to South Carolina and Virginia to support their excavation narrative — yet another deflection to obfuscate the facts. South Carolina is managing only one-tenth the amount of coal ash as North Carolina, and excavation was only ordered for Virginia basins in the eastern part of the state. When considering scope and scale, Duke Energy has already excavated more than 22 million tons of ash, or about half of the total amount that will be moved in those two states combined.

Finally, despite SELC’s attempt to scare people, outside experts studied each North Carolina basin and determined that public health and water quality are well protected. Studies of these remaining sites also show that the highly localized impact to groundwater will gradually improve over the long term at roughly the same rate regardless of how the basin is closed.

Bottom line: Duke Energy supports a commonsense and cost-effective closure plan for its remaining basins that fully protects people and the environment — capping them in place. Meanwhile, SELC and the state want to impose on customers and communities the most expensive, most disruptive and time-consuming closure approach available, but without any additional environmental benefits.

It’s our duty to put customers first, and our approach has us on track to close basins quickly, safely and affordably. We are doing the right thing for the environment and the people of North Carolina, and we firmly believe that an excavation order without basis in science or fact imposes only unnecessary cost and disruption, without any measurable benefit to the customers and communities we serve.

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Stephen De May is North Carolina president, Duke Energy.