Raleigh, N.C. — Officially speaking, coal ash isn't "hazardous" waste.
That may be hard to reconcile with the pictures of black, toxin-laced goop that poured into the Dan River from a retired Duke Energy power plant on Feb. 2. But power companies are currently allowed to store a slurry of water and the residual material left over from burning coal in unlined ponds that are environmentally less secure than a typical municipal landfill.
Many people live or work in buildings partially constructed from the same material that is reportedly leaching arsenic, mercury and other heaving metals into the Dan River.
"If you look at the shingles on your roof, they probably have boiler slag in them," said Thomas Adams, who heads the American Coal Ash Association, a group that promotes recycling of "post combustion" materials.
Drywall, concrete blocks and even carpets can contain the leftovers from burning coal for power. It also shows up in soil mix used in peanut fields and, in some states, in the mix used to combat ice on roadways.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been ordered by a federal judge to decide whether the government will regulate coal ash as hazardous or nonhazardous waste by Dec. 19. Separately, a bill in Congress could direct the EPA to write a rule that treats coal ash as nonhazardous. That is a decision being watched closely by officials with Duke.
"With respect to coal ash, we do expect that it will be designated as nonhazardous, so that's the general assumption that we're working with," Keith Trent, Duke's chief operating officer, told investors on a recent conference call.
Adams and others in the industry say that regulating coal ash as hazardous waste would kill the market for "beneficial uses" – driving up construction costs and requiring more landfill space – and increase costs for power companies. But environmental activists say there are too many questions to label the coal-burning leftovers as nonhazardous.
"There's enough of a risk from this stuff that it's better to be over-protective than under-protective," said Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.
The more pressing issue, Gaskins said, is averting more spills like the one on the Dan River and at 13 other locations throughout North Carolina where Duke has coal ash ponds.
"From our perspective, we're focused on the biggest risk right now," he said. "We can debate that other stuff later, but right now, it is really crazy to put coal ash so close to rivers and drinking water supplies."
Since Feb. 2, Duke and environmental regulators have been trying to get a handle on the Dan River spill. Originally, the company estimated some 82,000 tons of ash spilled into the river. Executives have since revised that estimate downward.
"We estimate between 30,000 and 39,000 tons of ash was released into the water," Duke Chief Executive Lynn Good told investors.
Although state officials say municipal water supplies don't face an immediate threat, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has warned residents not to swim in the affected area or eat fish caught near the spill.
The company says it will pay for the cost of the cleanup.
"Duke Energy insurers or shareholders will pay for any required cleanup associated with the Dan River incident, and we will not ask customers to pay those costs," company spokesman Tom Williams said in an email to WRAL News.
Chris Ayers, executive director of the North Carolina Utilities Commission's Public Staff, which represents consumers in hearings before the panel, confirmed that company officials told him that they would not seek a rate increase from customers in order to pay for the spill.
However, customers can expect to help pay the broader cost of closing and cleaning up coal ash ponds across the state. Those costs will be part of $900 million the company expects to spend nationwide on complying with environmental regulations in the next two years.
That cleanup can't come fast enough for Matthew Starr with the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation. He keeps a wary eye on the coal ash pond that covers 143 acres at the old Lee Steam Electric Plant near Goldsboro. The pond is roughly five times bigger than the facility at Dan River and sits a few dozen feet from the Neuse River, held back by an earthen berm.
"There's documented groundwater contamination," Starr said, pointing to tests that show the levels arsenic, boron, chromium and manganese near the pond violate state safety standards.
While that slow steady leak is damaging, a gushing failure like the Dan River incident would affect boaters, fishermen and anyone who gets their water from the city of Goldsboro.
Duke Energy Coal Ash Ponds
Locations source: NCDENR permits. Informatoin source: Duke Energy
The coal ash pond sits just 10 miles upstream from the city's main water intake. Sediment from the Dan River spill coats the river bottom for 70 miles downstream.
"That spill (on the Dan River), if anything, should alert people to the fact that this is something that has to be cleaned up and has to be removed," Starr said.
Goldsboro City Manager Scott Stevens said his city has emergency plans in place if the Neuse River were fouled by a catastrophic spill. Water conservation, connections with other water systems, alternate water sources and reserves could keep the city going, he said.
But, he acknowledges, the Dan River spill has brought the possibility of a problem with the Lee Steam station to the forefront.
"I would expect us to start asking what is going to happen long-term with the ash ponds," Stevens said.
That's not a conversation he has had with Duke yet, but it is coming. "We will certainly at least ask the question," he said.
The question has become more urgent in recent years. A massive spill from a Kingston, Tenn., coal ash lake is the single biggest such catastrophe. More than 300 acres were flooded by the toxic sludge, and the cleanup is still underway more than five years later. The nation's second-largest spill came in 2011, when a bluff that was holding back an ash pond collapsed in Milwaukee, allowing tons of ash to slide into Lake Michigan.
Even before the Dan River spill, several of Duke's dams in North Carolina displayed signs of wear and tear.
At the Lee Steam Station, an EPA assessment reported, "intense rain, wind and flooding during Hurricane Floyd caused significant interior slope slumping and distress along part of the exterior slope." There was no reported release of coal ash into the Neuse River at that point, according to the report.
In another example, the coal ash pond at the Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington has required several repairs over the past four decades. In 2010, a 20-inch rain caused a breach in the dike.
Still, one possible option for dealing with the coal ash ponds involves leaving the bulk of the ash exactly where it is sitting.
Pending regulations and beneficial uses
Duke has been been considering its options for dealing with the coal ash ponds for more than a year. More modern disposal methods keep the ash dry so that it doesn't interact with groundwater.
Those deliberations were hurried along when the state sued the power company early last year. The four lawsuits were precipitated when environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center warned the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources that a group of nonprofits would bring suit against the company if the state did not.
What is coal ash?
Coal ash is the generic name for what's left over after coal is burned to generate fuel. Roughly 10 percent of coal is not combustible.
The concerns about these left over materials is they contain arsenic, selenium, mercury and other heavy metals that are poisonous to humans and wildlife.
Although generically called "coal ash," there are four distinct products - each with their own risks and benefits - according to both environmental groups and the industry.
Fly ash is a fine substance with a power-like consistency captured by a power plant's emission controls. It is used in making cement. It can also be used as fill material and in soil modification.
Bottom ash is made up of large particles leftover at the bottom of certain coal-fired furnaces. It is made up of various-sized particles ranging from large grains to small pebbles. It is used in concrete mixes and in snow and ice traction control materials.
Boiler slag is black granular material collected at the bottom of certain types of coal-fired furnaces after being quenched with water. It is used in asphalt, roofing materials and other construction applications.
Gypsum is produced when certain types of emission control systems use a chemical process to trap pollutants that would otherwise be released into the air. It's most notable use is as raw material for drywall or wallboard used inside homes and businesses.
Environmental groups are less concerned about the use of coal ash to produce cement. "If done properly, there is minimal leaching of toxic materials, and using fly ash in concrete benefits both the environment and construction companies," according to a brief from the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.
There's more concern about using it in situations like agricultural products or construction fill materials where it has the potential to interact with, and leach chemicals into, groundwater.
Duke environmental director George Everett told lawmakers this week that the company was preparing separate plans to permanently shut down each of its 14 coal ash pond locations.
"The first one of those is ready to be submitted to the state," Everett told the Environmental Review Commission, adding that the Dan River spill altered those plans.
"Based on this incident ... we internally have formed a team to say, 'Time out, we want to take a second look,'" he said.
One particular method the company could use involves "cap in place," a technique that would dry out the ponds and cover them. Although some lawmakers have called for the coal ash pits to be completely dug up and moved, Gov. Pat McCrory and DENR Secretary John Skvarla have been more circumspect about how the state might finally deal with the ponds.
"They are sending a very mixed message about what they intend to do," Starr said.
If the coal ash is moved, it can end up in one of two places: a lined landfill where it would sit forever, or recycled into various kinds of construction materials.
"The most recent studies say that these materials have an economic value of $9 billion to $10 billion per year," the American Coal Ash Association's Adams said.
He pointed to Denmark, where nearly 100 percent of the coal ash produced by power generators is recycled. "They have nowhere to put it," he said.
Environmental groups say recycling coal ash is not necessarily a bad idea. It saves landfill space, keeps construction manufacturers from mining other materials and can, in some cases, help contain the hazards associated with the ash.
But there can be dangers. In 2008, Chinese-made drywall emitted poison gas into thousands of U.S. households. In court documents, lawyers for those homeowners blamed the problem of the use of synthetic gypsum, one of four categories of material generally known as coal ash, although there was never a definitive finding.
"It makes a lot of difference what kind of ash you're talking about, what kind of coal it came from. The problem is, it varies so much," Gaskins said.
In an ideal world, he said, a testing regimen would examine which batches of coal ash were suitable for which purposes, but there's too much ash for such a complex scheme to work.
At an EPA hearing in Charlotte in 2010, several concrete producers and transporters told the EPA that roads, houses and other construction projects would get more expensive if coal ash wasn't available to manufacturers.
"I would be willing to say that the percentage of fly ash concrete we have produced is closer to 70 percent," Jane Arnold, a owner and manager of Southern Concrete Materials near Charlotte, said at the hearing. "If fly ash is labeled as a hazardous material, then Southern Concrete material would discontinue its use. The increased costs in handling the material and the potential perceived liability that we could be facing would render the use of fly ash economically unfeasible."
That, in turn would drive up costs she said. "We, as taxpayers, would also pay more for an airport parking deck, a classroom building at (the University of North Carolina at Charlotte), a new sports arena, a bridge over (Interstate) 485, new schools or even sidewalks."
As for environmentalists, Gaskins said, the biggest worries don't come from concrete applications that Arnold was talking about. Rather, he said, the ash is more troublesome when it is used in a way in which it isn't bound to other material. For example, coal ash is sometimes used as fill material to level a construction site. It can also be used to balance the pH in soils for certain crops, such as peanuts. Those kinds of applications, he said, would allow any toxic material present in the ash to escape.
"Is it going to happen in every case? No. But on average, we know there are pretty high levels of some pretty scary things in this ash," he said.
Adams insists the applications are safe. The key, he said, is to make sure whatever poisons might be present aren't ingested in large amounts.
"If you have a bottle of aspirin sitting on your desk, it's not harming you. If you take it according to the directions, it's helpful. But if you take the whole bottle at one time, that becomes toxic," he said.