This story was updated to correct the date of the meeting, which is Feb. 18.
Area residents can take a peek tonight into the proposed future for Belews Creek Steam Station and nearly 12 million tons of coal ash that has been stored there in an unlined basin.
The state Department of Environmental Quality is hosting a 6 p.m. hearing at nearby Walnut Cove Elementary School in Stokes County to gauge public sentiment toward the plan for closing the basin and moving its stored ash to a new, lined landfill on site.
The plan emerged from the proposed settlement of a lawsuit involving DEQ, environmental and civic groups, and plant owner Duke Energy that focused on Belews Creek and five other coal-fired units elsewhere in North Carolina.
"We're very pleased with this plan," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill that was involved in reaching the accord.
Holleman said the plan calls for Duke Energy "to excavate almost all the coal ash" at Belews Creek.
"And it will be a tremendous step forward for this community to have this unlined pit removed from their neighborhood and off the banks of a stream that flows directly into the Dan River," he added.
The plan under scrutiny Wednesday promises to be a lengthy one: The concept calls for it to take until 2031 to finish building and filling the new landfill with coal ash.
Once DEQ approves an overall concept at Belews Creek, the utility likely will spend six to eight months preparing the final design and another year seeking a permit to build and operate the new landfill, said Dave Renner, a Duke Energy vice president.
If everything goes according to schedule, the utility would begin putting coal ash into the new landfill in early 2023, Renner said.
The Duke Energy executive added that plans on display envision returning much of the 270-acre storage basin to the natural valley it once was.
"It will look much like it would have looked before we put the dam up and started impounding," he said of the basin-building process.
The basin was built in the early 1970s when the Belews Creek plant opened and it accepted coal ash from plant operations for years.
Duke has upgraded technology at the Stokes County plant so that all coal ash is handled in dry form — much of it recycled — and the basin is no longer in use.
Coal ash is a waste product left behind after coal has been burned to produce electricity. It's not poisonous, but it contains heavy metals and other elements that can be harmful when concentrated in lakes, streams and groundwater.
Seepage from the Belews Creek basin has contaminated groundwater on plant property and on one adjoining tract, but no drinking water supplies or recreational waters have been compromised, according to Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton.
Norton said part of the proposed Belews Creek closure plan includes cleaning up groundwater on the site and monitoring it for several decades to make sure the cleanup is complete.
The legal action that led to the settlement late last year stemmed from a disagreement over the best way to dispose of the submerged coal ash at Belews Creek and the other five plants.
Duke Energy wanted to leave much of the ash in place under synthetic caps, which the utility contended would protect the environment just as effectively as a lined landfill.
But state regulators, Holleman's group and other environmentalists strongly favored lined landfills as the only sure method.
In addition to Belews Creek, plants covered by the recent agreement include the Allen Steam Station in Gaston County; the Mayo and Roxboro plants in Person County; the Rogers Energy Complex in Rutherford and Cleveland counties; and the Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County.
DEQ is holding public hearings near each of the plants this month so neighbors can see and react to what is planned in their area.
Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.