Photo courtesy Duke Energy
Image courtesy Duke Energy
A diagram of the coal-ash basin at the Dan River powerplant, where the spill occurred.

Duke Energy's efforts to remove a portion of an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled in February into the Dan River could signal the start of new responsibilities for North Carolina utilities in managing waste from coal-fired powerplants.

Duke signed an "enforceable" agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 22 to clean up affected sites in the state and in Virginia about two weeks after its cleanup contractor, Knoxville, Tenn.-based Phillips & Jordan Inc., began barge-mounted vacuum dredging of the largest coal-ash deposit marked for removal.

Working from a Danville, Va., city park located along the river, the contractor is in the midst of removing an estimated 2,500 tons of material consisting of coal ash and river sediment, says Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks.

The utility expects Phillips & Jordan to complete its work and return the park to operation by "sometime in July," he says.

According to Duke, the coal-ash material has deposited in "varying degrees at different points" along the river, with little to no material deposited in some areas. The Danville site's deposit covers an area estimated at 300-350 yd in length and 20 yd wide, with the ash material as much as 1 ft deep.

The utility will likely leave a considerable amount of material in place to be monitored. "There are going to be potentially many locations where leaving that material [in place] makes better sense for protecting the area," Brooks says. "If the EPA, which is leading the operation, indicates a deposit needs to be removed, we're going to take that action."

Crews previously removed an estimated 18 tons of ash sediment from an area just downstream of Duke's Dan River powerplant. The utility has no current estimate of how much ash it will be able to recover or how much the excavation will cost. Phillips & Jordan did not respond to a request for comment.

During recent months, North Carolina state officials and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) have sought to close the gap in the state's regulation of coal ash. On April 16, McCrory, who worked for Duke for more than 25 years, unveiled a plan that emphasizes converting or closing the state's 33 coal-ash ponds, eliminating regulatory loopholes and requiring utilities to submit operational and emergency-response plans for sites.

"We need to close these loopholes and give our regulators the tools they need to solve this more than 60-year-old coal ash problem," McCrory said. State legislators are reviewing his plan.

Paul Newton, Duke Energy president in North Carolina, told legislators that costs for converting ash sites could range from $2 billion to $10 billion. The utility would also have to build new lined landfills since the utility's current ones are at capacity, he said.