Duke Energy's permits to release pollution from three coal-burning power plants in the Charlotte area expire early this year, and for the first time the North Carolina Division of Water Quality will require the company to test groundwater near the facilities' coal ash ponds.

The move is part of a broader effort by North Carolina to address environmental concerns in the wake of the disastrous 2008 collapse of a coal ash waste pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee -- but some are wondering whether the state's action is too little, too late.

NCDWQ has asked Duke Energy as well as Progress Energy -- the state's two largest electric utilities -- to select sites for installing groundwater monitoring wells near the ash ponds, the Raleigh News & Observer reports. The three Duke plants whose permits are up for renewal soon are the Riverbend and Allen plants in Gaston County and the Marshall plant in Catawba County.

The state's policy change comes after an environmental advocacy group documented serious problems with groundwater contamination at the state's coal ash ponds. Last fall, Appalachian Voices' Upper Watauga Riverkeeper released an analysis of in-depth monitoring data from coal ash ponds located next to Duke and Progress Energy's 13 coal-burning power plants across the state, finding that all of them are contaminating groundwater with toxic metals and other pollutants.

The existing wells that provided the data were installed voluntarily by the utilities close to the ponds. The wells that the state wants installed would be located further away from the ponds.

But Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman called the state's monitoring well order a "baby step" and questioned whether its placement requirements were appropriate, the Charlotte Observer reports:

"Really we need wells on the border of the property," he said, "and if there's contamination they need to look outside the boundary."

Over at the blog of Creative Loafing, Charlotte's alternative weekly, Rhiannon Bowman -- who recently wrote a story about Merryman's efforts to protect Charlotte's drinking water from ash pond contamination for Charlotte magazine -- greeted the North Carolina's announcement with skepticism:

The state has known about contaminated groundwater at these sites for quite some time. The moment they discovered the water was contaminated they should have demanded further testing, but they didn't.

In addition, it remains unclear what North Carolina regulators would do if the required monitoring wells confirmed groundwater contamination coming from the coal ash ponds.