Catherine Clabby

News reporter and editor. Duke University journalism faculty. Co-edit 9th Street Journal at Duke Reporters' Lab. Alum reporter @ North Carol

Feb 19, 2018
2 min read

Four years after the Dan River spill drew public attention to millions of tons of coal ash waste stored near North Carolina waterways, no one knows how much will get dug up.

State environmental regulators entered a Roxboro auditorium last week intending to brief residents on proposed rules for future coal ash landfills built in North Carolina.

But four years after the Dan River coal ash spill revealed how much coal waste Duke Energy stores in unlined pits across this state, the small number of people in attendance wanted to talk about what is in the ground now, not tomorrow.

What share of 110 million tons of coal ash Duke Energy will be required to recycle or dig up and move to lined landfills has not been decided. Nor is it clear how much will remain in unlined basins. Speakers in Roxboro urged regulators to force Duke Energy to excavate every ounce.

Doyle Peed, who owns land adjacent to the Mayo Steam Electric Generating Plant north of Roxboro, said even if the utility drains and covers a coal impoundment there, water could still flush through some of the more than 6 million tons buried there and possibly carry contaminants with it, he said.

Duke Energy Coal Ash: Click on markers above to see how much coal ash Duke Energy stores in unlined basins and where excavation of all basins is expected.

“You can’t stop the water with springs and everything under that property always flowing. There is no way to stop it,” said Peed, who said he shares his concerns with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit that has helped environmental and citizen groups sue Duke Energy over coal ash disputes.

Duke Energy leaders say they are confident they can safely drain and cap impoundments holding about 70 percent of the waste created from burning coal at power plants, and leave it where it is. More aggressive cleanups aren’t only costly, utility officials argue, but would bring unwelcome environmental impacts.

“What the critic groups don’t want you to know is that their extreme agenda can actually do more harm to the environment than good,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan wrote in an email exchange last week. “They want to burden NC with creating additional, new disposal locations, often in new communities, transporting the material with hundreds of thousands of dump truck trips. It is also the most expensive and most disruptive option that could take decades.”

Coal ash future unclear

The state’s Coal Ash Management Act and SELC court victories have, so far, sealed the fate of about 30 percent of the 110 million tons of coal ash on eight Duke Energy properties, with excavation or recycling required at the locations.

Changes to the state’s Coal Ash Management Act in 2016 allowed Duke to gain low-risk designations for all but one impoundment at the remaining six properties, which hold most of the state’s coal ash collected over decades. First Duke must deliver new or improved water systems to neighbors within half a mile of impoundments who are dependent on well water, which it has started doing. And it must demonstrate that all the dams separating coal ash waste from waterways are sound.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes that excavation or capping basins, combined with long-term monitoring, can be equally protective of the environment. The EPA also acknowledges that the vast majority of ash in the nation will be safely stored by capping basins in place,” is how Duke Energy describes it in writing. “Consistent with the industry, Duke Energy plans to safely dispose almost 70 percent of its ash by capping in place.”

These Duke Energy images show the difference between a lined coal ash landfill and an unlined coal ash basin. A coal ash landfill without the soil lining.
This is the fully lined version, which also feature wells in order to monitor the the quality of the nearby water.

But gaining low-risk classifications for the six coal ash sites won’t guarantee the utility can keep ash in its unlined pits, said Jay Zimmerman, a DEQ environmental program manager involved in assessing coal ash risk, after the Roxboro meeting last week.

Even though EPA does not designate coal ash as a hazardous waste, the impoundments are still subject to state rules protecting groundwater. That’s because coal ash can contain contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic. If not contained, the waste has the potential to pollute the groundwater feeding drinking wells, something Duke has argued is unlikely here.

Duke Energy must complete technical site assessments describing hydrologic and other conditions at each impoundment. The utility must also develop plans that include multiple closure methods so regulators can compare factors such as their effectiveness, cost and speed. DEQ staff will then decide if the utility can leave any of the ash where it is after draining water within the impoundments and covering them.

“If Duke can provide us the data and we believe it — that they can do it with capping in place — then theoretically we could support that,” Zimmerman said. “We’re a little ways from that.”

Closure plans for coal ash impoundments at Duke’s six coal ash sites with uncertain futures are due to DEQ by December 2019, DEQ spokesman Jamie Kritzer said.

A long march

Duke Energy pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution in 2015 after three U.S. Attorneys charged the utility with violating the Clean Water Act. They charged the corporation with releasing pollution at its Dan River steam station in Rockingham County, the Cape Fear steam electric plant in Chatham County, the Asheville steam electric generating plant in Buncombe County, the H.F. Lee steam electric plant in Wayne County, and the Riverbend steam station in Gaston County.

The utility has funded thousands of hours on site assessments and has excavated about 10.3 million tons of its 110 million tons of coal ash in North Carolina since 2014. It has started to provide new water supplies to coal ash basin neighbors, which is expected to cost $31 million.

The company has estimated that coal ash cleanup could cost $5 billion, Sheehan said. Duke has sued multiple insurance companies to try to force them to cover parts of that bill. It seeks a 13.4 percent rate increase from the N.C. Utilities Commission too.

Some neighbors to coal ash impoundments who had sued Duke Energy have recently agreed to accept $5,000 payments from the utility in return for limitations on when they can sue Duke. Duke Energy has said the switch was a clarification, not a change, but attorneys representing neighbors, whose suit was dismissed, describe it differently.

“The new and improved release removes language that would have forced neighbors to agree that Duke had fully compensated them for all harm past and future, and is narrower in scope,” according to a statement from the law firm Wallace & Graham in Salisbury.Claims of children and employees are preserved, among other things.”

Neighbors preserve the right to file suit concerning any air, home or non-groundwater environmental contamination claims against Duke Energy, the law firm statement notes. It also includes a property access agreement that protects neighbors for any property damage incurred while Duke employees, contractors or other persons are performing work on their properties.

The utility this month agreed to pay an $84,000 fine and speed up closing impoundments at three of its power plant properties to prevent tainted water from “seeping” from those spots. That work must be done at the Rogers plant in Rutherford County by March 2020; the Allen site in Gaston County by June 2020 and the Marshall property in Catawba County by March 2021, eight years before the rest of the impoundments must be shut down.

About 250 people who live near coal ash sites have opted to drink bottled water obtained from Duke, some for more than 1,000 days. Linda Jamison, who lives in the home she grew up in very close to the Roxboro Steam Electric Generating Plant, also in Person County, is one of them.

She suspects the utility will never agree to dig up the close to 19.9 million tons of coal ash near her home. But she’ll be glad when Duke installs a whole-house filter so she can stop using bottled water for cooking and drinking. Because she lives with joint pain due to rheumatoid arthritis, hauling cases of water bottles has not been easy for her.

“If it’s between dealing with the bottled water and having 10 root canals, I’d take the root canals,” Jamison said.

Bill Collins, who lives within a half mile of the Allen Steam Station in Belmont, said it was a vast relief when Duke hooked up his home to a public water supply six weeks ago. No longer did he need to depend on bottled water to fill drinking glasses, wash vegetables and fruits or otherwise cook at home. And he has no more worries about what’s in his shower water.

But his concerns about the 16 million tons of coal ash near his home persist.

“My other issue is, of course, the coal ash which may be left to continue to pollute somebody’s water supply,” he said. “That is a scary thought.”