By Rose Hoban
A plan to remove and make good use of some of the millions of tons of toxic coal ash stored in dumps around North Carolina appeared to hit a snag this week.
Last summer, legislators in the General Assembly wrote a bill that, among other things, called for Duke Energy to contract to build three plants to recycle coal ash that’s laced with dangerous chemicals and metals into concrete for roads, bridges and buildings. Once mixed into the solid matrix of concrete, the pollutants in the ash are fixed into place removing the threat to soil and water.
But this week, a provision tucked into a bill changing business regulations would remove the requirement that Duke build one of the three coal ash recycling plants, leaving thousands of tons of ash in place at one of their sites in North Carolina. The measure comes just days ahead of the July 1 deadline for Duke to announce the location of the third cement plant they’re supposed to build, after announcing the first two in January.
That’s causing heartburn for people in North Carolina’s concrete industry, who say they can’t find enough of the ash to meet demand. The move has also riled environmental activists who live near the coal ash dumps as well.
From cast off to sought after
Adding coal ash to concrete makes the material more durable, more resilient and makes it perform better, according to UNC Charlotte civil engineering professor John Daniels, whose research focuses on how chemicals leach through soils and other materials.
“The coal ash reduces the temperature of the mix while [concrete] is curing,” Daniels said. “If you have a huge batch of concrete to cure over a bridge deck or the floor of a building, this releases enormous amounts of heat which can be problematic when it’s trying to cure properly… especially in the summer heat.”
He said the other advantage to using coal ash in place of Portland cement to make concrete is that it makes the final product more dense.
“You can have greater strength and less permeability,” he said. “The selenium, the chromium, the arsenic, all that stuff gets bound into a matrix and matrix is far less susceptible to leaching out.”
Estimates from a study commissioned by the Carolinas Ready Mixed Concrete Association found that the industry used about 959,000 tons of fly ash in 2016.
Connie Wilson, who lobbies for the concrete mixers, said that industry had trouble finding enough locally sourced ash for mixing into cement and could only source about a third of its needs locally last year. Concrete mixers resorted to buying ash imported from overseas, raising the price and wasting the local opportunity.
“We just heard this weekend that the Morehead City port is looking at a proposal to bring in coal ash from India so that it can be purchased here in North Carolina,” Wilson told the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on Monday. “The reprocessed ash here is going to be a wonderful quality. It saves us money, it saves the consumer and the ratepayer money.
“We’ll be paying $40 a ton for it and for 900,000 tons, that’s $36 million.”
Neighbors of the coal ash ponds are anxious to see some resolution to the big problem on the other side of the fence from their properties.
Amy Brown, who lives adjacent to Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Plant in Belmont, said she’s hoping that the third site will be near her home.
“I want recycling so bad here in Belmont,” said Brown, whose family has been living off of bottled water supplied by Duke for more than 800 days. “No one wants to cap this stuff in place. Leaving your toxic mess in the ground thats unlined and putting a cap on top of it… how will we ever have peace of mind?”
Brown’s fellow activist Deborah Graham lives in Salisbury beside the Buck plant which was one of the two recycling plants to be named in January.
But Graham has not seen any increase in traffic passing her house to indicate that Duke is constructing a cement processing plant.
“It’s one road in and one road out and I’ve not seen any increase of traffic,” Graham said. “I’m not aware of anything, and you can’t go down there anymore to look at the site. They put a gate up and now they’ve got a big no trespassing sign.”
‘We love recycling’
Graham and Brown have reason to be eager for coal ash to be excavated from near their houses. At a similar impoundment in South Carolina, researchers tracking groundwater near Santee Cooper’s Grainger plant in Conway found arsenic pollution had dropped 60 to 90 percent as the excavation proceeded.
The ash at that site is being removed in the wake of a lawsuit by the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center, which has also sued Duke.
“We see as soon as the ash starts to get excavated the hazard levels start to drop,” said SELC’s Mary Maclean Asbill. “The more excavating that we can encourage or require, the better off the waters of North Carolina will be.”
Asbill said SELC would like to see another plant be sited in a place that’s not been ordered to be excavated by the General Assembly.
“It’d be a way to get a couple more sites to be excavated,” she said. “Without the third plant we fear that more ash will simply be left capped in place.”[sponsor]
But that’s something a spokeswoman from Duke denied.
“We love recycling,” said Paige Sheehan, from Duke. “We recycled 75 percent of the coal combustion products, that’s coal ash and gypsum, that we generated last year. It got reused.”
She said Duke had not asked for the provision to be inserted into the bill. She did say that in a committee meeting, a Duke lobbyist was asked about whether lawmakers should to do a market study on all three sites.
“We’re prepared to comply with current law, to have a decision [on the third site] by July 1,” Sheehan said. ”But when we realized lawmakers were looking at the issue, we advised them to look just at the third unit.”
That market study is in the bill, but adoption of the bill would effectively delay the requirement for Duke to announce the site of the third plant until the middle of next year.
Sheehan said Duke is prepared to meet the statutory deadline for announcing their third cement plant site on Saturday, but she wouldn’t say on Wednesday where that site would be.
“If you think about it, hundreds of ash basins around the nation are being closed, around 700,” she said. “Recycling is the ultimate way to manage the waste. You’ll have utilities around the nation looking for opportunities to sell their coal ash and it creates competition.”
STORY UPDATE: In the waning hours of the legislative session, H374 appeared and disappeared from the legislative calendar several times. In the end, lawmakers recessed without passing the bill.
On Friday, June 30, Duke Energy announced the location of its third plant, to be built adjacent to the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure.
Addendum: This story has been altered to note that H374 would include a market study of whether a third cement processing plant would be needed.