Coal Ash Still Has North Carolina Stumped

Three months after the Dan River disaster, there's still no plan for North Carolina's 50 polluting coal ash impoundments.

In our work to promote clean, healthy and safe energy choices in the Southeast, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy tackles some pretty complex issues; from the big-picture question of how to reduce our contribution to carbon pollution to the economic and policy implications of new clean energy technologies and environmental regulations.

Solving the Southeast’s coal ash problem, in contrast, seems pretty straightforward although certainly not without its own set of complications. While there’s no overnight solution to the 450 coal ash dumpsites scattered throughout our region, many of which are actively leaking toxics into vital water resources, there is an answer: Utilities must stop dumping toxic waste into unlined, antiquated impoundments and use commonplace earth-moving technology to relocate existing coal ash dumps to lined landfills away from waterways.

Since the Kingston disaster struck more than five years ago, SACE has been calling on our region’s utilities to do just that, while continuing to push for strong federal regulations, hoping to ensure consistent, comprehensive regulation of toxic coal ash.

Two of South Carolina’s major utilities have voluntarily adopted this solution, without the need of state or federal regulations or a large-scale environmental disaster. However, North Carolina continues to lag behind when it comes to dealing with coal ash, even in the wake of the Dan River catastrophe.

While the South Carolina utilities call the move away from old, leaky impoundments a “win, win, win” for their customers, bottom line, and the environment; North Carolina’s utility giant, Duke Energy, continues to claim that moving their ash could cost up to $10 billion and would be nearly impossible if ash is treated like hazardous waste by the federal government.

Faith and community leaders speaking against coal ash pollution at the 2014 Duke Energy annual shareholder's meeting.

Three months after the Dan River disaster there’s been untold amounts of public outcry, ever-expanding lawsuits from environmental and community organizations and Duke’s own shareholders, a federal criminal investigation, and overwhelming evidence that all the utility’s coal ash impoundments in the state are violating state and federal environmental regulations. Yet, there’s been little movement by the company to actually protect communities and waterways from this toxic threat. At last month’s shareholder meeting, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good and staff maintained that the company complies with environmental regulations and permits, despite the fact that they received multiple violations for coal ash problems since February.

We also keep waiting for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) to step up to address these issues, but sadly, DENR continues to defer to Duke Energy every step of the way. Even when a judge ruled that the state has the authority and responsibility to force Duke to immediately remove the source of groundwater contamination at all it’s coal ash sites, NC state officials appealed. With the environmental regulatory agency committed to avoiding their responsibility to protect public health and the environment from toxic coal ash, it seems that the NC Legislature is the best chance for real coal ash solutions for North Carolina.

An excavator works beside a mound of ash at the pond at Santee Cooper's Jefferies power generating station just outside Moncks Corner, S.C., on Feb. 26, 2014. The recycled coal ash is trucked from the site and then used to manufacture of concrete. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Currently, multiple bills aimed at dealing with North Carolina’s coal ash are in the works. On May 15, the first day of the current legislative session, Senate President pro term Phil Berger and Senator Tom Apodaca introduced Senate Bill 729, which is identical to Gov. McCrory’s Coal Ash Action Plan that received loud criticism for mirroring the now-defunct “sweetheart” deal between DENR and Duke. On May 28, Senator Mike Woodard introduced a second senate bill, SB S856, that includes restrictions on utility cost recovery for coal ash expenses, puts into place drinking water protections and more stringent requirements for landfills receiving the waste. Reps. McGrady, Samuelson and Hager have also introduced the Gov.’s Coal Ash Action Plan in the House as HB1228. On May 27, Rep. Pricey Harrison introduced HB1226, the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, which is stronger than other bills as it sets a deadline for closing existing coal ash impoundments. Ironically, Rep. Harrison introduced similar legislation several times previously, without so much as a hearing. Perhaps if the General Assembly had been more forward thinking in the past instead of reacting to the Dan River disaster, there would have been sufficient safeguards in place for our waterways and communities years ago.

Duke Energy's dredging operation in Danville, Virginia.

Meanwhile, the latest sampling data of the Dan River shows that coal ash continues to migrate downstream in shifting deposits, though so far none is believed to have reached the drinking water reservoir, Kerr Lake. This new information reinforces the fact that we won’t fully understand the impacts to Dan River, it’s communities and ecosystems, for many years to come. Federal authorities are on the scene and on May 22 the EPA and Duke Energy finalized a plan to clean up the spill. The agreement stipulates that EPA will oversee the cleanup under provisions in the Superfund program, which deals with hazardous waste sites. It’s notable that the coal ash spill is being handled under hazardous waste law, as coal ash is not currently classified as hazardous, though that may change this December with the issuing of a long-awaited coal ash rule.

Duke is vacuuming approximately 2,500 of the 39,000 tons of ash from one of the largest deposits on the riverbed, near Danville, Virginia and shipping the ash to a municipal landfill in Roxboro, North Carolina. Community members there are concerned that the landfill may not be able to control toxic leachate and worry about how Dan River’s ash could impact their town, echoing concerns from places like Perry County, Alabama that suffered severe impacts since receiving ash waste from Kingston, Tennessee. The city of Charlotte, NC backed away from using Duke Energy coal ash as structural fill at the Charlotte Douglas Airport, citing the unknown long-term risks associated with the waste.

While there is still no final plan for the future of North Carolina’s coal ash, hopefully the state is nearing a turning point. Thanks to all the publicity, legal action and scrutiny of federal regulators following the situation, it seems unlikely that Duke Energy will continue carrying on with business as usual. But until comprehensive regulations are finalized (both in and out of North Carolina), we all need to keep pressure on our state and federal representatives, and EPA to create strong safeguards protecting all communities and waterways from coal ash dumpsites. Let them know that coal ash really is one of those rare instances where we have the skills, knowledge and ability to solve a big problem; all we need now is for those in charge to decide to do the right thing.

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