The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)


February 28, 2014

Coal ash poses threat on Yadkin

Governor orders Duke to remove drinking-water hazard

Thursday, February 27, 2014 — As the probe of Duke Energy’s contamination of the Dan River widens, there is a renewed focus on preventing future coal ash spills, including a potential one within the Yadkin-Pee Dee River basin.

On Tuesday, Gov. Pat McCrory told Duke Energy to move its coal ash ponds away from drinking water sources. McCrory’s demand poses his most vocal stance yet against his former employer.

“We remain quite concerned about the coal ash spill discovered February 2 at your Dan River Plant in Eden and the ongoing environmental damage it is causing,” McCrory wrote to Lynn Good, Duke’s chief executive officer and president.

“So far, drinking water supplies remain safe. But as a state we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water.”

McCrory also asked that Duke share its plans to handle the situation with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources by March 15.

One day earlier, DENR modified its permit that paves the way for Duke Energy to move coal ash from the basins at the Dan River power plant to a lined landfill.

“Based on our investigation of this spill, one option under consideration right now is to eliminate all coal ash waste discharges coming from this facility and require that Duke Energy move the coal ash waste stored onsite to a lined landfill away from any waterways,” Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, said Monday.

Concerns that DENR has not done enough to protect state waters from industry contamination has prompt-ed lawmakers to make inquiries.

Federal subpoenas were issued last week to Duke Energy and DENR in the wake of the Dan River power plant ash spill, both parties confirmed last week.

And while Dan River does not pose a direct threat to Stanly County’s drinking water, Duke Energy’s retired Buck Steam Station and its coal ash ponds sit along the Yadkin River and in the basin that provides the area’s drinking water.

Members of the Environmental Review Commission met last week in search of answers as to how the state has become victim to the third largest coal ash spill in the nation, according to N.C. Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, who serves on the panel. He said the four-hour meeting included Duke Energy officials.

McLaurin said he left the meeting wondering why the state had not done more to require companies such as Duke Energy to adopt preventative measures regarding coal ash storage.

“I don’t know why the state environment department (DENR) did not address this last year,” McLaurin said.

DENR filed lawsuits against Duke Energy for groundwater and wastewater violations at multiple sites. Last July, DENR settled the matter with Duke by implementing a fine of $99,111. However, there was no requirement to clean up the coal ash ponds that threaten the state’s waterways, according to Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the Sierra Club (N.C. Chapter), Feb. 14 in emails to McLaurin.

“DENR could have been more assertive,” McLaurin said.

“It’s their responsibility to protect our water, land and air.”

According to Duke Energy, ash basins are at all of the 14 coal plant sites Duke operates in North Carolina. Seven of those plants have been recently retired, including the Buck Steam Station.

Duke Energy has 13 active basins and 18 basins that are either semi-active or inactive across the state. (Active basins are currently receiving ash; semi-active are like those at the retired sites that are receiving other permitted water/wastewater but no longer ash; and inactive are not receiving ash or other water/wastewater flows.)

Gavin points out that of the 37 coal ash ponds at the 14 Duke plants, 29 have been rated “high hazard” by the Environmental Protection Agency. A high hazard rating means that pond failure will probably cause a loss of human life in addition to economic loss, environmental damage and damage to infrastructure.

Legislators asked Duke representatives why more was not done to prevent coal ash pond spills.

“We did not get a definitive answer as to why,” McLaurin said.

“That’s why there is an investigation now.”

A broken stormwater pipe beneath one of the coal ash ponds at the Dan River station is to blame for spilling 30,000 to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash and millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater into the river.

“It seems to me that the pipe running beneath the pond should have never been there to begin with,” N.C. Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, said.

“This looks like it was set up for failure many years ago. That’s what blows my mind.”

Duke waited 24 hours before notifying the public, Gavin said. It took five days to contain the spill. Since then, the state has warned of avoiding direct contact with the water and eating fish from the river.

Coal ash contains numerous toxic metals that can cause cancer and damage to the central nervous system in humans, Gavin said.

Three ways to dispose of coal ash include: landfills, wet ponds and through other more useful ways, such as concrete and soil amendments used to elevate land for development, Gavin said.

Suspect regulations and minimal oversight regarding coal ash ponds and disposal are key elements in the ongoing investigation.

Duke officials contend the company has been a responsible steward of its handling of coal ash.

“We already have transitioned our larger operating plants in N.C. to dry fly ash handling, which manages fly ash in lined landfills,” Erin Culbert, a Duke spokeswoman, said via email.

“The vast majority of ash being generated today at our N.C. operating plants is already being managed in lined landfills.”

Duke adds that the Dan River spill occurred while the company was moving toward environmental remedies.

“We have retired half of our 14 coal plants in the state since 2011,” Culbert said.

“Before the Dan River event, our focus was on closing ash basins at the recently retired coal plants in North Carolina, and engineering studies were already underway to help determine the most appropriate closure method for each site. This remains a high priority, and we will work through those steps with regulatory and legislative input to ensure our decisions protect the environment and our communities.

“In light of the Dan River incident, we are taking another look at all our ash management practices and basin closure plans.”  

McLaurin applauded Duke’s sense of responsibility regarding the spill, but he remains suspect of how the company plans to clean up Dan River as well as deal with the remaining plants that threaten state waters.

“Duke has accepted responsibility and has not tried to pass the buck, which is a good thing,” McLaurin said.

“We need to set a timetable. We don’t need to be vague about that. This is a serious issue in North Carolina. Now that we’ve had a spill, we don’t need to have another one.”

Duke officials have said its customers will not have to pay for the Dan River cleanup. It is too early to estimate what the cost will be for the cleanup, Culbert said.

As for how the company will pay for the handling of future coal ash removal and storage, Duke was more vague about whether customers will share in that expense. In fact, it appears customers will likely shoulder the expense.

“Costs associated with Duke Energy’s longer-term efforts to close ash basins and make any adjustments needed to our ash handling process across our six-state region will follow the normal rate recovery mechanisms specified by our state utility commissions and legislatures,” Culbert said.

Estimates of that expense are also unknown at this time, she added.

The Dan River spill has McLaurin second guessing his support of Senate Bill 612 whereby he broke ranks from most Democrats and endorsed. SB 612 prohibits municipalities from enacting more stringent regulations than required by the state.

“A situation like this has brought to light that coal ash storage is a problem in North Carolina,” McLaurin said.

“Nobody likes regulations, but water quality is an area where we need to have strict standards.”

To submit story ideas, contact Ritchie Starnes at (704) 982-2121 ext. 28 or email ritchie@stanlynewspress.  com.

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