If a controversial plan to dump Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash in rural Chatham and Lee counties wreaks havoc on the environment, $2 million may be the max local landowners can expect in compensation.

Officials with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources say they have accepted proposals by Duke Energy contractors to set aside that amount to cover possible contamination stemming from the projects if the contractors cannot pay for the damages. The two projects would dump up to 20 million tons of ash in two abandoned brick mines near Sanford and Moncure.

For comparison, the economic impact of last year’s 30,000-ton ash spill in Eden’s Dan River was estimated to exceed $70 million by legal and environmental experts.

“That is flatly inadequate,” says Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which opposes the proposed dumping. “It’s ridiculously low. The waste will remain a threat to groundwater as long as it’s there.”

Duke contractors Green Meadow LLC and Kentucky-based Charah Inc. submitted those numbers as part of the permitting process for the projects. If approved, Green Meadow, which formed last year in North Carolina, would shuttle coal ash from Duke Energy plants to the abandoned mines.

State regulators could approve permits for the projects by July, although the plans will also require federal approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, a process that could take up to a year.

Environmental groups have been pressuring Duke to clean up its leaky coal ash lagoons in North Carolina since 2008, but state lawmakers and DENR did not force action from the energy giant until last year’s highly publicized spill. Over the next 15 years, Duke is expected to dispose of an estimated 100 millions tons of the energy-plant byproduct, which contains toxic ingredients such as arsenic, selenium and other heavy metals.

Last month, the state acknowledged that the vast majority of drinking wells near Duke’s coal ash properties failed to meet safe drinking water standards.

Because coal ash is not classified as a hazardous waste by the EPA, the Fortune 500 utility would not be expected to pay for any environmental damages stemming from dumping in Chatham and Lee on land owned by Green Meadow.

While Duke Energy could not be reached for comment, the utility and Green Meadow have said a synthetic liner, as well as layers of natural clay, will separate the coal ash from local groundwater. But environmentalists point out there remains the inevitable risk of spills and failing liners, which can break down after a few decades.

“It’s just a fallacy,” says Vick. “It’s kicking the can down the road—and not very far.”

Both projects have spurred intense opposition from local residents and groups such as the Haw River Assembly, a Chatham-based environmental nonprofit. Elaine Chiosso, the group’s riverkeeper, calls the proposed coverage “woefully small.”

“There’s so many things that can happen when you have that amount of ash in one place,” she says.

But in interviews with the INDY, DENR officials compared Duke’s dumping plans to typical landfill projects.

“We think the amount is commensurate to the amount of risk, which we don’t think is very high,” says Ed Mussler, a supervisor with DENR’s Division of Waste Management.

Ellen Lorscheider, section chief of DENR’s Solid Waste Division, says she believes Green Meadow’s dumps in Sanford and Moncure will be constructed in a “very safe way.”

State law requires permit applicants to provide financial assurance for up to 30 years after both dumps are sealed and closed. After dumping, Green Meadow said in its application that it plans to market the sites for potential industrial uses.

In addition to the contamination coverage, DENR has accepted Green Meadow’s proposal to budget about $5.5 million for closure costs at each site, as well as more than $2 million for post-closure monitoring at each site, which would include testing the groundwater for contamination.

Throughout the coal-ash controversy, DENR has been dogged by environmentalists’ claims that the agency has been too slow or lax in handling Duke’s coal ash deposits across the state.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which led the legal effort to force Duke Energy to clean up its leaky coal ash deposits in North Carolina, says surrounding landowners in Lee and Chatham are right to be concerned, particularly given ongoing concerns over DENR enforcement.

“They can talk, they can write tickets, they can hold press conferences,” he says. “But at the basic level, are they getting anything done? The answer is no.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “What’s a little coal ash between friends?”