Marshall Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant in Catawba County, NC. EPA's climate plan could force the closure of coal plants across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Marshall Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant in Catawba County, NC. EPA's climate plan could force the closure of coal plants across the U.S. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Catherine Clabby

As they assess Duke Energy’s plans to shut down 8 out of 32 coal ash impoundments across the state, state environmental officials are requesting comments from outside their ranks.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is asking interested individuals and organizations to comment in writing and at four public meetings this month on the utility’s lengthy draft plans to close coal-fired power plant waste impoundments near Asheville, Gastonia, Eden and Wilmington.

As is often the case with the massive and complex task of coal-waste cleanup in this state, there’s a wrinkle; the Duke draft plans are not yet 100 percent complete.

Citing “deficiencies,” S. Jay Zimmerman, director of DEQ’s water resources division, last month requested more technical information from Duke, including assessments of any vertical and horizontal contamination of groundwater and soil at the sites, as well as data on the potential of contaminants to reach streams, rivers or lakes.

“Excavation of ash is only the beginning of the corrective action process, and understanding how the excavation of ash will affect the current and potential future groundwater contamination is a necessary component of the closure plans,”  DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger explained in an email Friday.

In this image of the Asheville Steam Station, the coal ash basins are clearly marked. Lake Julian is the water body in the top right of the image. The French Broad River is visible adjacent to the red dotted line furthest to the left. Photo courtesy Duke Energy.

Because state law compels the agency to elicit public feedback once draft closure plans are submitted, DEQ is proceeding with the public outreach even though it’s waiting on more information, DEQ officials said.

Duke has been developing the groundwater data and modeling DEQ has asked for as part of comprehensive site assessments and corrective action plans that the state Coal Ash Management Act requires for each property. The utility will provide all that’s been requested, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

“We submitted what we felt met the requirements for the site analysis and removal plans. We are happy to submit the additional groundwater data and modeling information as it becomes available,” Culbert said.

The first to be shut down

The sites in question are not the largest of Duke coal ash impoundments in North Carolina that collectively hold more than 100 million tons of coal ash, most stored in unlined pits. But after the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill, the General Assembly designated these sites as high-risk locations to be dug up and closed down first.

The 2014 state Coal Ash Management Act, amended last year, requires DEQ to review coal ash site closure plans to ensure that they adequately protect both public health and the environment.

Staff and volunteers with Clean Water for North Carolina, an environmental advocacy group, are particularly interested in how Duke intends to assess contaminated soils at the properties, said spokeswoman Katie Hicks.

“We’re really closely looking at the excavation and soil sampling plan, particularly who oversees the sampling and how many samples will be gathered. How free of coal ash will the site need to be in order to be considered cleaned up?” she asked.

Duke Energy has already begun excavation at the four properties now under DEQ review.

Asheville Steam Station (near Arden, Buncombe County), a coal-fired plant, remains in operation but Duke Energy is building a new natural gas plant in the footprint of one of the old ash basins. A share of the ash there was removed for fill in lined pits at Asheville Regional Airport. The remaining ash is being shipped to a lined landfill in Homer, Ga.

Dan River Steam Station (near Eden, Rockingham County, retired) (near Eden, Rockingham County, retired) ash is being shipped to a lined landfill in Virginia while an on-site landfill is under construction.

Riverbend Steam Station (Mount Holly, Gaston County, retired) ash is being shipped to a lined structural fill project to restore land at the Brickhaven Mine near Moncure.

Sutton Steam Station (Wilmington, Brunswick County, retired) ash is being shipped to the Brickhaven site as well while an on-site landfill is built.

Impoundments at three of the properties must be closed by 2019 to comply with state law. Duke Energy has until 2022 to shut down impoundments outside Asheville, where it is building a new gas-fired power plant.

Despite objections from environmental groups, Duke intends to leave coal ash in the ground at nine coal waste sites, including some of those with the most waste: such as the Roxboro Plant, with 19.5 million tons, and Allen Steam Station, with 16.5 million tons. It is also providing new water supplies to people dependent on well water who live within half a mile of its coal ash impoundments.

This Duke Energy chart reports the amounts of coal ash on 14 utility properties in North Carolina as of June 2016. Ash is being moved off grounds to lined waste sites at sites marked (2). “Path to low” refers to sites where Duke can keep ash in unlined impoundments after any needed dam repairs are finished and after neighbors receive new drinking water supplies.

Closure approval standards

The state’s Coal Ash Management Act requires DEQ to approve plans only if they adequately protect public health and the environment.

In addition to detailing what it will do with its ash, CAMA requires that Duke must develop plans for controlling any leachate — water that has percolated through waste and absorbed some of its potentially toxic constituents. Duke must also make plans to monitor the former impoundments for at least 30 years, unless the company can show that it is unnecessary.

Coal ash is not designated as hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. But because it contains contaminations such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, federal rules established in 2014 stipulate that its disposal must be managed and monitored, particularly to prevent pollution of ground and surface waters.

Clean Water for North Carolina wants state regulators and Duke to be sure that the transport and eventual burial of the ash pose no environmental risk on or off Duke properties.

The environmental advocacy group has argued that Duke should retain liability for that coal waste in case  any environmental impacts reach beyond its utility properties.

The use of non-utility landfills to store coal ash is growing, particularly in the southeastern United States. Lawmakers in at least two state legislatures have proposed regulations and laws to limit or control transport flow of the waste into their respective states. Last month in Northampton County, the private company VistaGreen withdrew plans to build a coal ash landfill after residents voiced concerns.

The project, however, may be revived, according to local news reports.

Note: Descriptions of where ash is being shipped from Dan River and Riverbed steam stations were corrected after Duke Energy identified errors in information it provided North Carolina Health News.

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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...

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