Duke Energy says it will fully excavate coal ash from unlined ponds, but that won’t fix the legacy of contamination

Duke Energy says it will fully excavate coal ash from unlined ponds, but that won’t fix the legacy of contamination

- in Environment, Top Story


Anatomy of a lined coal ash landfill (Illustration: Duke Energy)

Tonight is the first public meeting on historic closure plans of Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash basins.

This is the first in a series of stories about Duke Energy’s closure plans for the ash basins at the remaining six plants in North Carolina.

The modern history of Duke Energy in North Carolina pivots on a single day: Feb. 2, 2014.

On that Sunday afternoon, a pipe collapsed at the utility’s coal-fired power plant in Eden, releasing at least 39,000 tons of ash and up to 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, which carried the pollution flow at least 70 miles downstream.

The events of the last six years – court battles and public outrage, two Coal Ash Management Acts and recent EPA regulatory rollbacks, $68 million in criminal penalties and the tainted legacy of former Gov. Pat McCrory, ousted in part because of his mishandling of the disaster – have culminated in this: a historic consent order between the state and Duke Energy that requires the utility to fully excavate the remaining 80 million tons of ash from unlined pits at the remaining six plants.

Over the next two weeks, the NC Department of Environmental Quality is hosting six public meetings to receive input on the closure plans, which allow Duke Energy to store the ash in dry, lined landfills on the respective plant properties, ship the material offsite, and/or recycle it for beneficial reuse, such as in concrete.

The first meeting, which concerns the Mayo plant in Person County, is tonight at 6 p.m.

Note: The original version of this map had transposed the locations of the Marshall and Cliffside plants. The error has been corrected.

Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton said that while the consent order gives the utility disposal options, it intends to construct lined landfills at each site: Belews Creek, Allen, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro. The utility does not plan to recycle the material, Norton said.

Like the other plants, such as Sutton, where full excavation is either complete or underway, the landfills will be equipped with dual geosynthetic liners and a leak detector system. The consent order also requires the bottom of the landfill to be at least five feet above the water table, as well as groundwater and surface water monitoring and regular inspections of the landfill caps and liners for 30 years.

“This is a tremendous improvement for these communities,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which successfully sued Duke Energy to excavate the ash from its other eight North Carolina plants. “The ash will be moved to modern controlled and nonpolluting storage.”

Because of  location, geology, groundwater flow and the amount of ash that must be excavated, dried and then redeposited, each site poses particular challenges and proposed closure deadlines range from 2028 to 2037.

“It’s important that it be done as quickly as reasonably possible, but also carefully,” Holleman said. “It’s important that Duke be careful of the management and movement of the ash, and that DEQ monitor it. Otherwise there’s a risk of catastrophe.”

The subject of tonight’s hearing – the Mayo plant – is located 10 miles northeast of Roxboro. At 153 acres, the current unlined basin holds 6.63 million tons of ash. The new landfill would be built within a portion of the existing basin, graded and seeded with grass, and rise about 170 feet above Boston Road. Wastewater from the basins will be pumped, treated and discharged in two phases, the decanting phase and dewatering phase, under state permits.

The cost to build the lined landfill and its infrastructure is estimated at $249 million, plus $95 million for the 30-year post-closure monitoring. The project is expected to be complete by 2035. Duke Energy will likely ask the NC Utilities Commission to allow it to pass much of the cleanup costs at the six plants, estimated at $5 billion to $6 billion, to customers in future rate cases, which consumer groups and ratepayers oppose. In two ongoing rate cases, Duke has already asked the commission for approval to bake a portion of previous cleanup costs into proposed increases.

Duke originally balked at DEQ’s requirement of full excavation, and contested the agency’s decision at the Office of Administrative Hearings. But after two legal setbacks in that venue, the energy giant and DEQ negotiated the closure plans.”The communities and the people getting involved,” said David Caldwell, the Broad Riverkeeper, “that’s what turned the tide. People demanded action.”

Neighbors of the plants and environmental watchdogs have long alerted state regulators to the ongoing contamination from the unlined pits that leaked and seeped into the groundwater and surface water. Part of Caldwell’s job has been to monitor the effects of the Cliffside/Rogers plant on the Broad River – a crucial drinking water supply.

“We know the lagoons at Cliffside have been leaking,” Caldwell said. “There have been dozens of seeps, some of it directly into the river and other into the groundwater which then flows into the river. The main takeaway is that once the pond is drained there will be less pollution.”

Duke University scientist Avner Vengosh: “The story is not over. It will be with us for decades to come.” (Photo: Duke University)

Less pollution, yes, but while the source of the pollutants will be removed, existing contamination will likely persist for decades. Last week Duke University scientist and professor Avner Vengosh told reporters that while the consent order and full excavation is “an important moment, we’re not getting rid of the coal ash problem in North Carolina.”

For example, coal ash remains at the bottom of Sutton Lake, where Duke Energy operated a coal-fired power plant from 1954 to 2013. The plant has since been retired and demolished. Excavation of the unlined pits is nearly complete, but sediment contamination remains.

“Coal ash is an environmental legacy outside of the ponds,” Vengosh said, adding that other lakes, such as Norman, Mayo and Hyco, could be at risk, as well as soil at these sites. “The story is not over, ” he said. “It will be with us for decades to come. ”