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Duke Energy releases detailed action plans, maps for dams at coal ash sites

Duke Energy Corp. has posted more detailed information, including flood inundation maps, as part of its emergency action plans for potential dam failures or other serious incidents at its coal ash sites.

The company posted the updated documents to its website on a page dedicated to compliance with federal regulations for coal combustion residuals. The move comes after environmental groups threatened to sue the company for violating the law by not publicly releasing detailed action plans and inundation maps.

Earthjustice and the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, said Sept. 20 that they sent notices of intent to file suit in federal court to Duke Energy subsidiaries in North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana for "withholding critical dam safety information that Duke Energy was required to disclose to nearby communities, including emergency responders' contact information and maps of the areas in the path of a coal ash spill."

The environmental law groups note that under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's final coal ash rule enacted in 2015, utilities were required by April 2017 to make public emergency action plans for each of their coal ash storage sites "where a failure would likely result in loss of human life or serious harm to the environment."

The SELC sent notices of alleged violations tied to 10 coal ash storage sites in North Carolina, including the site of a massive coal ash spill in February 2014. "Behind dams rated High and Significant Potential Hazards, these unlined, leaking Duke Energy sites hold a total of over 92 million tons of coal ash upstream of public drinking water intakes and many are located near people's homes and communities," the SELC said.

Earthjustice sent notice of intent to sue to Duke Energy Kentucky Inc. for alleged violations at its East Bend site, while Duke Energy Indiana LLC was informed of potential enforcement actions involving its Cayuga, Wabash River and R. Gallagher power plants.

Duke Energy on Sept. 22 said it decided it was "appropriate to post additional information related to emergency action plans (EAPs) for coal ash facilities, specifically inundation maps and emergency responder contact information."

"Now we know what Duke Energy was trying to hide," Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the SELC, said in an Oct. 9 news release. "Duke Energy's dangerous coal ash lagoons threaten families, houses, property, lakes, and rivers throughout North Carolina if they fail. A wall of coal ash and polluted water could pour out of lagoons into neighborhoods and water supplies, flooding houses, businesses, roads, and highways. Duke Energy should not impose these risks upon families and clean water. Duke Energy needs to move all its coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage where it will not pollute and cannot harm North Carolina's families and drinking water."

Duke Energy has maintained that "public safety and safe operations" are the company's highest priorities.

North Carolina law requires Duke Energy to close all of its coal ash ponds by the end of 2029 and provide permanent alternative water supplies to residents within a half-mile radius of coal ash impoundments by fall 2018.

"Ash basins continue to operate safely and are highly regulated. Removing water and permanently closing basins, work that is already planned or underway, adds an additional margin of safety. Engineers conduct weekly inspections, and state regulators oversee that process and can conduct their own inspections. We continue to perform any necessary maintenance until basins are safely closed," Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in an email.