Raleigh, N.C. — Two environmental groups are warning state leaders against allowing Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pits in North Carolina by shipping the ash to solid-waste landfills.
A report released Monday by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League says Duke should be required to store the ash safely at its own sites, using hazardous-waste storage technology approved by the U.S. Department of Energy.
BREDL Director Lou Zeller says the liners used in municipal waste sites are not truly leak-proof and won't keep toxins in coal ash from leaching into nearby groundwater.
Zeller pointed to the example of Uniontown, Ala., a rural community where the Tennessee Valley Authority shipped the coal ash it removed after the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. Alabama regulators agreed to allow the TVA to dispose of the ash in a large landfill there.
According to environmental groups and some local leaders, the coal ash is now causing health problems for Uniontown residents. A federal lawsuit invoking the Civil Rights Act – the town's population is mainly black – is underway.
Most North Carolina landfills are located in poor and minority communities.
"What we do not want to see is another Uniontown," Zeller said. "No community deserves that kind of mistreatment."
BREDL state director Therese Vick called on Gov. Pat McCrory and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources "to make it clear to Duke Energy that they will not be allowed to take their toxic coal ash to municipal solid waste landfills in other communities."
"They need to say they're not going to allow that," Vick said. "That's what we're asking them to do."
The group is recommending a type of storage known as "saltstone," which involves storing waste above ground in huge concrete silos the size of a football field. Zeller says the units are modular, can be quickly built at power plant sites and are much safer than municipal landfills.
Zeller couldn't offer an estimated cost to implement the technology at all 14 coal ash sites but said each silo costs "in the tens of millions of dollars."
Duke Chief Executive Lynn Good told state officials two weeks ago that the utility plans to move the ash from ponds at three of its North Carolina plants to lined landfills or a "structural fill solution." The company is still working through its plans for the ash ponds at its other 11 plants, she said.
The environmental group NC WARN also took part in the news conference. Executive Director Jim Warren said Duke's shareholders, not its customers, should shoulder the cost of the cleanup.
"Duke Energy’s executives made the decision to cut corners in dealing with this toxic waste all these years, and they’ve profited by it. And so, we cannot let this problem be dumped onto the ratepayers of North Carolina," Warren said.
Warren also called for any cleanup deal between state and federal regulators and Duke to be a transparent and public process.
"The people that are most impacted need to have the guiding voice at the table," Warren said. "They need to have the support of the governor, that he will not allow this resolution to go behind closed doors in any kind of way and see Duke Energy cutting deals with state regulators or with local officials."
Zeller echoed Warren's skepticism, noting that testing on Duke's property at Dan River and other coal ash sites has shown illegally high levels of toxic chemicals for years.
"DENR officials, who are right behind me in the office, have known about this contamination for years, and yet nothing has been done. Are they waiting for the pollution to move offsite? Are they waiting for the next disaster to happen?" Zeller asked. "It seems like they're just sitting on their hands."
DENR spokesman Drew Elliot declined to comment "on action taken by previous administrations" but said the issues raised at the news conference are important.
"Certainly, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the EPA and Duke Energy are looking closely at all of the available technologies for coal ash disposal and the location of where the ash will be stored in the future," Elliot said via email. "Both the EPA and DENR have recognized that the complex technical issues associated with coal ash necessitate a site-specific approach in the final resolution to this long-standing problem."