This is an aerial shot of the Dan River Steam Station
An aerial shot of the Dan River Steam Station, the power plant from which ash spilled into the Dan River. Duke stores coal ash, a byproduct of electricity generation, in wet ponds. Photo courtesy Duke Energy

By Catherine Clabby

State regulators have raised the risk designations for some of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps, a move that could require 25 impoundments to be dug up by 2024.

Or not.

The Department of Environmental Quality wants the power to lower risk rankings in 18 months if the utility proves that coal ash is not polluting nearby drinking water and repairs dams at its waste sites.

Duke Energy's Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant coal ash ponds. The DEQ has ranked the ponds as risk.
Duke Energy’s Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant coal ash ponds. The DEQ has ranked the ponds as high risk. Photo courtesy Duke Energy

Classifying risks posed by coal ash waste sites is a key step to North Carolina’s efforts to force Duke Energy to shut down coal ash ponds on 14 properties storing about 100 tons of coal ash. This drive began in 2014 after a spill at a Duke Energy in Rockingham County property dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

That event prompted an investigation that resulted in Duke Energy pleading guilty to nine criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act and agreeing to pay a $68 million criminal fine and spend $34 million on environmental projects.

On Wednesday, it became clear for the first time that Duke Energy is considering providing alternative water supplies to water-well owners living near its waste. While in early planning stages, utility staff are considering running municipal water line extensions to affected homes, digging new community wells or providing filtration devices.

Low, medium or high

DEQ officials said they must ask legislators for permission to re-determine risk designations down the road because the state’s Coal Ash Management Act required the agency to prepare final risk designations by Wednesday.

“The deadlines in the coal ash law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed. It also does not allow for revisions to the classifications based on new information,” DEQ Sec. Donald R. van der Vaart said in a written statement. “Making decisions based on incomplete information could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when spending millions now would provide equal or better protection.“

That same law previously designated eight impoundments as high risk, requiring their fast-track excavation by 2019.

Lowering a dump’s risk status would save Duke Energy a lot of time and money. Low-risk sites need only be closed and capped by 2029, meaning water could be drained from a coal ash pond but waste would stay put. Dumps designated as an intermediate risk must be closed and dug up by 2024.

A map of Duke Energy's 14 coal ash sites
A map displaying Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash sites. Duke now owns Progress Energy’s former sites. Graphic courtesy NC DENR

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said the utility wants all 25 sites now ranked intermediate to be labeled low risk. The company is drilling more monitoring wells at DEQ’s request, but studies the company commissioned to date indicate they do no environmental harm, she said.

“We disagree with intermediate ranking,” Good said. “That would be the most extreme option costing the most money and creating decades of disruption to communities without additional benefits.”

Alternative drinking water

By way of example, Good said coal ash stored at the utility’s Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County totals the equivalent of 800,000 truckloads. If the company moved 100 trucks a day from there every day of the year, hauling away the waste would take more than 20 years.

Duke Energy is using trains to haul waste from some sites.

Good stressed that she believes DEQ has the authority to change the risk assessments without obtaining legislative approval, but that DEQ’s leadership does not agree it has that power.

Coal ash’s effects on drinking water is one of DEQ’s biggest concerns. The waste has polluted groundwater underneath all 14 utility properties stashing coal ash, DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder has said. And contaminants linked to coal ash, typically stored in unlined pits, have been detected in wells.

YouTube video

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good discusses ash basin closure options. Video courtesy Duke Energy

But it’s not simple to pinpoint coal ash as the source of the contamination. Two suspect contaminants – hexavalent chromium and vanadium – can occur naturally in North Carolina, for instance.

Duke Energy says research it has submitted to DEQ indicates that groundwater flowing near ash basins travels away from neighbor’s wells, except for at its Sutton Plant in Wilmington, where the utility has taken steps to address it. But the utility recognizes that studies conducted by outside experts may not provide the level of assurance that some people are looking for, Duke spokesman Erin Culbert said.

“Proving alternative drinking-water sources would give well owners peace of mind and enable the utility to preserve a wider range of options when shutting down its basins,” she said.

The state’s reversal this spring regarding 2015 health advisories it issued to owners of hundreds of wells near coal ash waste is one of the most controversial aspects of DEQ’s drive to force Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash.

Draft DEQ rankings last December designated 12 dumps as intermediate risks and four as low risk. Nine were placed in an uncertain category labeled “low-to-intermediate” due to gaps or deficiencies with data submitted by Duke Energy, Reeder of DEQ said at the time.

DEQ collected public comments on its earlier rankings in writing and in person, staging meetings in March in every county hosting coal ash containment sites.

The new ranking list “reflects countless hours of scientific and technical work by both state engineers and Duke Energy as well as thousands of comments by the public,” van der Vaart’s statement said.

Rankings released Wednesday confirm that digging up all coal ash in North Carolina is the best solution, said Brooks Rainey Pearson, a lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The fact that DEQ might reclassify the sites in 18 months, after statewide elections in November, including a re-election bid for Gov. Pat McCrory, concerns her, she said.

“That sounds a lot like not making a final classification as the Coal Ash Management Act required, but moving the situation down the road,” she said.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...