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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2017 file photo, crews with Duke Energy continue to remove coal ash from the old coal ponds at the Sutton Plant, in Wilmington, N.C. Duke Energy Corp., the country’s largest electric company, was ordered Monday, April 1, 2019 to excavate coal ash from all of its North Carolina power plant sites, slashing the risk of toxic chemicals leaking into water supplies but potentially adding billions of dollars to the costs consumers pay. (Ken Blevins /The Star-News via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The country's largest electric company was ordered Monday to excavate coal ash from all of its North Carolina power plant sites, slashing the risk of toxic chemicals leaking into water supplies but potentially adding billions of dollars to the costs consumers pay.

Duke Energy Corp. must remove the residue left after decades of burning coal to produce electricity, North Carolina's environmental agency said. The company had proposed covering some storage pits with a waterproof cap, saying that would prevent rain from passing through and carrying chemicals through the unlined bottoms, and would provide a quicker and cheaper option.

Duke Energy said Monday that the expanded excavation requirement could double its costs to about $10 billion. It had previously estimated the task would take up to 30 years to complete at all 14 current and former coal-burning plants in the state.

Coal ash contains toxic metals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic.

Monday's decision affects six coal-burning plants still operating in North Carolina. Pits at eight other power plants around the state had previously been ordered excavated, with the ash to be stored away from waterways.

The move means North Carolina joins Virginia and South Carolina in ordering its major electric utilities to move their coal ash out of unlined storage.

Monitoring data that U.S. electric utilities were required to report for the first time last year showed that of the 265 power plants reporting, nine out of 10 had contaminated groundwater with toxic substances at levels outstripping federal safety standards, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found.

Amy Brown, who lives a few hundred yards from the plant's coal pit, said Monday that the excavation order means the state is taking the steps she and other neighbors have demanded for years to protect her family.

"I can't even describe to you the joy that I feel, the peace that I now have," she said. "Whatever role we played in this, It was worth the sacrifice. It was worth it to know that these unlined, leaking coal ash pits that Duke had no intentions of ever tending to and cleaning up, they will now be cleaned up. That's huge."

Cleanup became a priority in North Carolina after a 2014 leak from a Duke Energy site left coal ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River on the state's border with Virginia.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy has 7.6 million electricity customers in the Carolinas, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.

Business on 04/02/2019

Print Headline: Duke Energy told to dig up coal ash

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