Today, on the dumpiest news-dump day of the year, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released its draft classifying the risk levels of coal-ash sites in North Carolina. Environmental groups generally agree: It is weak as hell.

The DEQ was required to rank 14 of Duke Energy’s sites across N.C. Those deemed “high” risk would be excavated and cleaned out by 2019; “intermediate” risk would be excavated and cleaned out by 2019. Sites deemed “low” risk are more of a toss-up; they may continue to exist, or they might be excavated, or they might sit in limbo for several years before a decision is made. A state statute, as well as the conditions of a criminal plea agreement, requires Duke Energy to clean up four of those sites already.

Last month, the Southern Environmental Law Center obtained a public document from the DEQ indicating that most of the sites were “high” risk. In today’s report, though? Most aren’t “high” risk.


“Duke is already required to clean up four sites — Asheville, River Bend in Charlotte, Sutton in Wilmington, and the Dan River,” says Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And we’ve reached an agreement with Duke to clean up three additional sites — Cape Fear, Lee, and Weatherspoon. And those three are the only three the DEQ says in this draft that Duke will have to clean up. Even though the professional staff who assessed the sites said in a publicly available document that most of these sites are high risk. Political leadership — the Secretary [of the DEQ, Donald R. van der Vaart] — watered it down.”

“Not only that, but they’re also saying most sites they still can’t decide what the risk level is, they can’t make up their mind,” Holleman adds. “They’ve failed to comply with the law.”

Amy Adams, campaign coordinator of Appalachian Voices North Carolina, agrees.

“It is alarming that DEQ leadership altered more than half of the classifications recommended by DEQ’s expert staff in the agency’s own draft report, leaving North Carolinians with the dramatically weakened proposal announced today,” Adams said in a statement. “This is especially egregious considering that more than 300 homes near Duke Energy’s Allen, Buck, and Belews Creek plants have received ‘do not drink’ orders from the health department and must rely on bottled water. DEQ owes these residents an immediate and clear explanation for the extreme, last-minute changes to the classifications of these coal ash pits.”

Secretary van der Vaart thinks environmentalist groups are disrupting the process.

“I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data,” van der Vaart said in a release announcing the draft. “The draft classifications released today reflect the latest environmental science.”

Holleman notes that the document (obtained via litigation) was available to any citizen who asked for it. “Only to politicians at the DEQ could something like this — the truth — be considered ‘corrupt’,” he says.

Nothing is final just yet. The draft’s classifications are subject to public comment over the next few months. Meetings will be held at each site to solicit input.