Could Duke Energy’s coal ash be headed to a mine near you?

A Duke Energy contractor is seeking permission from North Carolina regulators to move millions of tons of coal ash from existing dumpsites at the utility giant’s power plants and place it in abandoned clay mines in Lee and Chatham counties.

But should the plan win state approval over the objections of local governments, environmental advocates worry that it could lead to dumping of coal ash in scores of former clay mines across the state. The waste left over after burning coal to generate electricity, coal ash contains potentially dangerous levels of toxins including arsenic, lead, thallium, and radioactive elements.

The dumping permits are being sought by Charah Inc., a coal ash services company based in Louisville, Kentucky. The permit applications indicate the coal ash would be moved from Duke Energy sites in North and South Carolina.

The quest to move the coal ash comes in the wake of last year’s 39,000-ton spill into the Dan River from a retired Duke Energy coal-fired power plant in Rockingham County near the Virginia border. Most of the company’s current coal ash dumpsites are located along rivers and other waterways and are leaking pollution to both surface and groundwater supplies, creating an urgent need to find safer storage solutions.

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