by Aaron Burns

MOUNT HOLLY – Duke Energy’s Riverbend steam station will meet its demise two years early.

The coal-fired power plant was to be shut down in April 2015, but Duke Energy opted in late January to speed up the process to continue the transition to cleaner electricity sources. In a Feb. 1 press conference, Duke announced Riverbend’s retirement, effective April 1.

Riverbend, located off N.C. 16, opened in 1929. Its first two units were retired in 1979 and its third in 1976. Units 4-7 will soon join them in Duke’s attempt to retire as many coal-fired units from its fleet as possible.

The state approved a permit renewal allowing Duke Energy to discharge treated wastewater into the Catawba River in January 2011. The pollution coming from the station’s processing included heavy-metal waste and ash.

Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, also announced the retirement of its 87-year-old Buck coal plant in Salisbury.

“In addition to being able to close these (plants), we’ll be able to operate newer, cleaner facilities,” Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

“There will be a decommissioning process that will include inventories and draining fuel oil. Duke Energy does intend to close the ash (ponds) at the sites. We’re exploring multiple closure options.”

The plant closing will cost 65 people their jobs. Culbert said the company is working with the employees’ families to try and find them jobs within Duke Energy.

Rick Gaskins, the executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, said the early retirement should improve the river’s health and long-term viability.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Gaskins said. “It was one of the dirtiest, least-efficient Duke plants and it was discharging waste into the water for 860,000 people.”

Gaskins said the plant’s closing should have immediate effects on residents.

“From an air-quality perspective, this is important,” he said. “For the neighbors, what they’re going to see is less ash in their yards, on their roofs and on their cars. They’re going to breathe (fewer) pollutants.”

The Riverbend station’s four smaller natural-gas combustion turbines were retired last October.

Culbert said the plant will eventually be deconstructed to ground level, but Duke  Energy will continue to own the plant.

“At this point, we have no plans to continue generation (beyond April 1),” she said.