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An official with North Carolina's environmental regulation agency says deadlines under a coal-ash cleanup law have put enormous strain on the department's staff

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A coal ash cleanup law has stretched staff members at North Carolina's environmental regulation agency "to the absolute breaking point" as they analyze voluminous data to meet deadlines, a top agency official told lawmakers Wednesday.

Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, made the remarks as part of a status report on storage sites for the residue created when power plants burn coal. His agency is assessing 32 coal-ash basins around the state to prioritize when each must close.

During a meeting before the General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission, Reeder said it's been difficult to gather and analyze all the needed information under the timeline dictated by the state's 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. The state began pursuing stronger regulations and enforcement after a 2014 spill at a Duke Energy plant coated 70 miles of the Dan River in the gray sludge that can contain toxic chemicals.

At Wednesday's meeting, Reeder commended Duke Energy for its efforts to compile site assessments and corrective plans that can range between 1,000 and 5,000 pages each. But Reeder said still more data is needed to determine the extent of groundwater contamination and what levels of certain chemicals are naturally occurring.

"We just don't have the data we need to make that clear, scientifically defensible determination," he said, adding that they expect to have it soon.

He said incomplete data hindered his department's ability to finish a draft report due at the end of December that assigned risk levels to each coal ash pit. Eight pits have been rated as high-risk, meaning they must be excavated by the end of 2019. Twelve other pits are considered an intermediate risk, giving them an excavation deadline of 2024.

However, the state said it needed more data to firmly classify eight other sites that are either low or intermediate. Four others were classified as low-risk in the draft report.

Duke Energy released a statement saying it's met all required deadlines and delivered supplemental information from additional tests.

"We're all working under very stringent deadlines," the company said.

One of the legislative commission's co-chairmen, Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon, asked Reeder whether the environmental agency planned to ask for more time.

Reeder said his agency would meet the deadlines even if it had to work around the clock.

"Our resources, our staff, are stretched to the absolute breaking point because we're trying to do this with limited resources," he said. "We're trying to do this with the resources we have available to analyze all this data and make these determinations ... because I'm sure we're going to have to stand up in court and defend them through science."

Reeder also complained that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has slowed the coal-ash cleanup process by requiring revisions of wastewater permits needed to drain basins before they're excavated. He suggested the state could proceed without the EPA's cooperation if it must.

"We've got to make those ponds dry," he said.

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