The decision by state regulators to require Duke Energy to dig up, remove and dispose of all the coal ash near its Belews Creek Steam Station is the right call.

“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan said Monday.

Duke Energy had touted its “cap-in-place” technology, which would have left coal ash in lined containers at its current sites. But DEQ analysts concluded that it wasn’t safe enough for the sites under review.

The ruling applies not only to the Belews Creek site in Stokes County, along the Dan River, but also to the electricity-generating plants near Belmont, Mooresville, Roxboro and Shelby.

This is “one of the most important steps in the state’s history to protect North Carolina and its citizens from toxic pollution,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center based in Chapel Hill.

“It was obvious that in order to protect clean water and neighboring communities, Duke Energy needed to excavate all the coal ash from all the sites in this state.”

Coal ash, which is the residue left after burning coal to produce electricity, has been in the public eye since a February 2014 spill at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden released about 39,000 tons of stored ash into the Dan River.

Though it’s not classified as a hazardous material, the ash contains trace elements of such chemicals as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium and vanadium that can threaten water quality, especially in the large quantities of ash that Duke Energy had amassed at 14 sites across North Carolina.

There has been a circuitous route between that spill and today that has included lawsuits (some of which are still pending), new laws passed (including one requiring Duke Energy to clean up and close all its coal ash basins by the end of 2029) and questions as to who will pay for the cleanup, which Duke Energy now says could cost up to $10.5 billion.

The DEQ’s Regan said Monday that any request to pass the cost on to Duke Energy’s customers would be reviewed by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office and the N.C. Utilities Commission.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Pricey Harrison from Greensboro filed several environmentally themed bills in the state legislature, including one that would require Duke Energy to pay all the costs for cleanup.

“I think most ratepayers feel that way,” Harrison told BH Media on Tuesday.

Harrison has filed similar bills for years that have attracted little interest from the legislature. Maybe now someone will pay attention.

Duke Energy has been aware of the problems with coal ash containment since at least 2014, if not earlier. The company has been responsive at times, but it also has fought to deflect its cleanup responsibility. It could still challenge the DEQ’s ruling. But at this point it seems the company would only be delaying the inevitable.

Duke Energy says that removing the ash from storage basins at all of its current and former coal-fired plants “will take decades, stretching well beyond the current state and federal deadlines.”

Better start digging.

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