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The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced late yesterday that it will inspect all of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds next week--and also demanded that the nation's largest electric company let it see documents about those ponds that state law previously allowed it to keep private.

The agency wants Duke to provide engineering and emergency-action plans with maps showing the flood impacts if the ponds’ dikes fail. Utilities have not previously been required to produce those documents.

“Having a more comprehensive look at everything that’s out there will aid us in moving forward” with regulating the ponds, said DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer.

Legislation passed in 2009, after a massive ash spill in Tennessee, placed ash-pond dam inspections under the state dam safety office.

The legislation deemed all ash ponds “approved” by the state at that point. It said Duke and Progress Energy, separate companies at that time, did not have to provide documents connected with their continued operation and maintenance.

The utilities have cited that provision in refusing to turn over some documents the state requested, state dam safety engineer Steve McEvoy has told The Observer.

As part of those inspections, DENR will inspect the discharge points at all 14 of Duke's active and retired coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.  It will also check the structural integrity of all pipes, and take water samples and review videos of the inside of those pipes.  The state appears particularly interested in reviewing the pipes since the Dan River spill was triggered by a failed stormwater pipe located under an ash pond.  In a letter to Duke construction chief John Elintsky, DENR said that notwithstanding the 2009 law, public-safety considerations require the state to have this information on hand.  While the emergency action plans and flood-inundation maps will be kept confidential for security reasons, the overall results of those inspections will be public record.

Wednesday's move didn't come without some prodding.  On Sunday, the Charlotte Observer revealed that the water supply for Duke Energy's hometown of Charlotte is only three miles downstream from five billion pounds of coal ash at a recently-retired power plant.  And yet, it's been very hard to verify how safe the ash ponds are--largely due to that law.  Meaning that in essence, the nation's 17th-largest city may have the water-quality equivalent of an H-bomb pointed at it.  And the day before, the New York Times ran a devastating piece on how DENR has had its wings clipped since the GOP gained total control of state government.  Amazing what a little journalistic prodding will do.

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