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Expert: Concerns about moving ash ponds 'pure speculation'

Posted February 19

— At Wednesday's press conference about the Dan River coal ash spill and state regulation, state Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla said requiring Duke Energy to excavate and relocate its coal ash ponds in North Carolina to lined landfills could pose a risk to the environment. 

DENR leaders confirmed that they've known for years that all 14 of Duke's coal ash sites are leaking toxins. And for years, environmentalists have been asking the state and Duke to move the ash into lined landfills away from vital water supplies.

Skvarla said Wednesday that's a "one-size-fits-all" solution that's too extreme. 

"[Environmentalists'] only acceptable remedy was dig them up, move them to lined landfills and cover them. We’re talking 14 facilities and 32 coal ash ponds. I can assure you, it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of science that has to go into making those kinds of determinations. There are environmental scientists who say that is the worst thing that can happen to the environment. The answer is, nobody knows at this point in time,” Skvarla said in his opening remarks to reporters. 

Gov. Pat McCrory echoed those concerns in an interview with WRAL News later Wednesday.

"The best case scenario is to move the ash ponds, but I also have to understand that, in some cases, that option may not be environmentally sound or may cause a worsening of the situation," McCrory said. "I think we need to let the experts determine the best way to determine the long-term solution."

WRAL News asked DENR for a citation or source for the alleged concerns about environmental risk, but DENR was unable to provide any citation. 

A renowned national expert on coal ash ponds at Duke University says that's because there isn't one.

Avner Vengosh of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment has published multiple studies on the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., and its aftermath.

Vengosh has also published several peer-reviewed studies on contamination from North Carolina coal ash sites in at least 11 lakes and rivers. His team has been sampling water all over the state, including downstream from the Dan River spill.

Told about Skvarla's comments, Vengosh says there's no published study that casts any doubt on whether moving coal ash out of leaky landfills is the best move for the environment. 

"What are they talking about? Of course not," Vengosh said in a phone interview with WRAL News. 

"If there is evidence of groundwater contamination and surface water contamination at the coal ash pond, then leaving it as is obviously isn’t an option if the environment is something you care about," he said. "You don’t need to be Joe Chemist to figure that out."

Vengosh said the decision about what to do with the landfills should be up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as it was in Tennessee, and not the state agency. 

"You should follow the EPA guidance," he said. "The state, with all due respect, doesn't have the experience or expertise on the matter." 

DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said Skvarla was not talking about excavating coal ash pits but about removing coal ash from a riverbed, which can be risky if contaminated sediment is disturbed.

"When he said 'those kinds of determinations,' he was obviously switching to talk about environmental remediation in general," Elliot said. "Remember that his point was that nobody knows right now, so it wouldn’t make any sense to say 'nobody knows' right after you say ‘that’s the worst thing you can do to coal ash ponds.’"

Elliot didn't respond to observations that Skvarla's comments were clearly about excavating ash pits, as were the governor's.

29 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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  • djofraleigh Feb 21, 7:19 p.m.

    I'm wondering where the lined ponds will be located. whose roads and rails will carry it there. Who wants this stuff? How toxic is the ash compared to other pollutants from jet fuel burnt at 30,000 feet or eating fish, etc. Duke University did a study that showed the closer one lived to an airport the more lead was in them. Most of the lead in the air, or that comes down out of the air, comes from aviation. We can do without airplanes, commercial, private...and cut back on military flying.

  • Come On_Seriously Feb 21, 3:01 p.m.

    Nothing like the Department of Natural Resources that we fund with our tax dollars to look out for our home being run by a lawyer who not only doesn't believe in science, but believes that opinion should be given equal weight as the scientific process. That's right, some stay-at-home mom who thinks that her baby should be able to drink purple fracking fluid after so long as it has been blessed by her pastor should apparently be given the same consideration as a panel of scientists discussing the results of thousands of man-days of research. That's right HardyCitrus, he really is setting the stage to convince the few ignorant people left that the solution to this active pollution is to let it continue. Meanwhile, McCrory is reassuring his pals at Duke that he and Skvarla are under strict instructions from Art Pope to sweep this under the rug again.

  • hardycitrus Feb 21, 2:15 p.m.

    The guy is a Young Earth Creationist and evolution denier who believes that oil and natural gas are unlimited resources.

    And now he says it's too risky to NOT pollute.

  • sabsco Feb 21, 1:56 p.m.

    WRAL: You said in the headline that the opinion "pure speculation" was that of an expert. ... View More

    — Posted by jcthai

    The way I read it, it was Vengosh who said Skvarla's comments (regarding moving the ponds being... View More

    — Posted by matt_wood

    Correct. Reading is fundamental. So is reading comprehension.

  • matt_wood Feb 21, 1:17 p.m.

    WRAL: You said in the headline that the opinion "pure speculation" was that of an expert. ... View More

    — Posted by jcthai

    The way I read it, it was Vengosh who said Skvarla's comments (regarding moving the ponds being detrimental) were speculation.

  • redfish Feb 21, 1:00 p.m.

    Moving this material and making it available or use in concrete would make sense. Don't expect that to happen.

  • jcthai Feb 21, 12:43 p.m.

    WRAL: You said in the headline that the opinion "pure speculation" was that of an expert. However, upon reading the article it turns out it is the opinion of state Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla, a government official. What qualifies him as an expert?

  • ccsmith1902 Feb 21, 11:48 a.m.

    And McCrory wants to leave it to the experts??? What an idea!

  • scubagirl2 Feb 21, 9:49 a.m.

    So an expert is stating that Skvarla and McCrory are not telling the truth again. Does this... View More

    — Posted by westernwake1

    Don't need an expert to tell me they are lying........

  • scubagirl2 Feb 21, 9:47 a.m.

    "DENR leaders confirmed that they've known for years that all 14 of Duke's coal ash sites are leaking toxins. "

    KNOWN FOR YEARS!!!!! And NOTHING was done????? DENR is so deep in Duke Energy's pockets they will NEVER see the light of day.

    DE should be required to do whatever is necessary to clean this up, fines-more than $99,000.00 should be levied.

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