Lawmakers look at coal ash, sewage spills

Posted February 17, 2014

— State lawmakers on Monday took their first long look in five years at regulating coal ash ponds at North Carolina power plants – and it likely is the first of several this year after a massive ash spill in the Dan River two weeks ago.

No action was taken during the four-hour meeting of the Environmental Review Commission, which also reviewed a recent spill of 3.5 million gallons of untreated sewage in the Haw River at Burlington.

Duke Energy has estimated up to 82,000 tons of ash spilled from two ponds at a defunct coal-fired power plant in Eden after a stormwater pipe that ran under the ponds ruptured on Feb. 2. The ash, which is left over after coal is burned, contains arsenic and various heavy metals.

At times Monday, it seemed as if state regulators were on the same side as Duke, with both stating they've done everything required by law to deal with the spill. Environmental advocates angered by the spill were on the other side of the argument, urging lawmakers to crack down on Duke to prevent another spill.

Duke environmental director George Everett apologized to lawmakers for the spill and reiterated a pledge made 10 days ago by Paul Newton, the utility's North Carolina president, to do whatever it takes to rectify the problem.

"We sure do appreciate that Duke Energy's taken responsibility for it. It's hard to imagine who else would take responsibility for it," said Jenny Edwards, program manager for the Dan River Basin Association. "We look forward to see what the plan is to remediate what's happened to our river."

Everett said Duke halted the flow of ash-laden water into the river as quickly as possible, noting the solution took some planning and some engineering to ensure it would work. Duke has blocked off the ruptured pipe and plans to remove a second stormwater line under the ash ponds, he said.

Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, called placing a stormwater drain under toxic ponds "kind of dumb" and questioned why Duke didn't routinely inspect the pipe and didn't line the ponds so they wouldn't leak.

Everett said the ponds were created decades ago in an age when dumps weren't lined. The stormwater line was there even before the ponds were expanded over it, he said.

Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, also noted that there are no federal regulations regarding handling coal ash, although some are expected later this year.

Duke Energy coal ash ponds

Locations source: NCDENR permits. Informatoin source: Duke Energy

Environmental advocates have labeled 12 of the 14 coal ash ponds in North Carolina as high hazard, meaning they could fail at anytime.

Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the ponds continually leak chemicals and heavy metals into groundwater. The group has sued Duke over the ponds, alleging that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources isn't enforcing regulations against Duke.

"We have less secure storage of Duke's toxic coal ash than we have for your tomato peelings and banana peels in this state," Holleman said. "Duke's coal lagoons, including those at the Dan River prior to the spill, illegally pollute. DENR has stated so under oath, that every one in North Carolina violates the laws."

DENR Secretary John Skvarla angrily disputed Holleman's claims, saying the state has sued Duke over its coal ash operations. "We stepped up," he told lawmakers.

Late Monday, DENR announced that it has started to test the water quality in the headwaters of Kerr Lake, about 60 miles downstream from the ash spill. Officials said communities that use the river as their water supply have reported no problems to date.

Duke plans to dry out the coal ash in its ponds around North Carolina and dispose of it, Everett said, but plans will vary by location.

"There's clearly an opportunity and a cost to either dry it out and keep more water from coming in, move it to a lined landfill on our site (or) move it to a lined landfill at the local county," he said.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she hopes Duke shareholders pick up some of the tab for the spill cleanup and getting rid of the ash ponds, but Everett said it will be up to the state Utilities Commission how much of the cost is passed on to electric customers.

Public notice late in sewage spill

A main at a Burlington wastewater treatment plant cracked on Jan. 27, sending untreated sewage through a manhole about 500 feet from the Haw River, according to Reeder. Extremely cold temperatures at the time slowed repair efforts, he said, and about 3.5 million gallons went into the river by the time the system was fixed.

DENR officials told Burlington officials not to issue a public notice about the spill until regulators had a chance to inspect it, despite a state law requiring public notification within 48 hours of any sewage spill of more than 1,000 gallons.

Burlington didn't issue a news release about the spill until Jan. 30, and Reeder said he accepted responsibility for the delay.

"It's not Burlington's fault; it's our fault. It won't happen again," he said.

Reeder noted that even a "significant spill" of that size amounted to only 1 percent of the water flowing through the Haw River at the time, and there was no major environmental impact.

Haw Riverkeeper Elaine Chiosso said that is small comfort to people near the river, noting a similar spill during the summer, when water flows are down and activity on the river is up, "would have been a disaster."

Chiosso noted Burlington had two other spills in January and several last year.

Lawmakers questioned if there was any way to halt such spills, but Reeder and others noted that aging infrastructure – one water system several years ago replaced wooden water pipes – make that next to impossible.

"We have incredibly old infrastructure in North Carolina," Reeder said. "The thing is it costs billions and billions and billions of dollars to replace all of this aging infrastructure."


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  • xylem01 Feb 19, 2014

    Great! The very ones that allowed this to happen are now going to "legislate" the event. It will be as if it never happened. Wait and see.

  • John Paul Bertke Feb 18, 2014
    user avatar

    "Memo to Republicans: bashing the EPA isn't going to increase your popularity with voters who are starting to realize that, in a Republican administration, clean water and air cannot be taken for granted.." - knowsitall

    "Make the McCrony-Pope-Skvarla trifecta do more than just LOOK at the spills. Make them drink a tall glass of coal ash, and then bathe in it and gargle with it, and THEN we might see some pro-environmental action from these jokers..." - knowsitall

    I understand your indignation. But I wouldn't wish "a tall glass of coal ash" on ANYONE - not even if they posted here suggesting that we blame Duke Energy disasters on past politicians.

    It is peculiar, tho - some of these neocon posts are so nearly identical - if you didn't know better, you'd swear the posters were sitting side by side in an office at the southwest corner of Morgan and Harrington! :-) Naw, just my imagination.

    Anyway no one should have to drink a glass laced with arsenic and mercury. It's immoral.

  • Lorna Schuler Feb 18, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Completely agree on that. They will try (and probably succeed) to find a way to make the consumer pay for something that they should have taken care of out of their profits long ago. And yes, there needs to be more done by the NC DENR, EPA and lawmakers. All they have done for years everytime this very issue is brought up is slap them with a $99,000.00 fine. That's why the risk has remained.

  • goldenosprey Feb 18, 2014

    I'm sure Duke will use the same argument the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority used for raising rates into the stratosphere. "You sorry customers have been powered on the cheap all these years and now it's time to pay the piper."

    Remember folks, utility monopolies are guaranteed a profit! Sweet deal!

  • KnowsItAll Feb 18, 2014

    View quoted thread

    well the Republican legislature DID outlaw manmade climate change (in NC anyway), so you'd think that with that kind of awesome power, they could do something about pollution.

    Our Republican legislators will approve whatever bill they get from their bosses - ALEC and Duke Energy.

  • KnowsItAll Feb 18, 2014

    "Lawmakers look at coal ash, sewage spills"

    Make the McCrony-Pope-Skvarla trifecta do more than just LOOK at the spills. Make them drink a tall glass of coal ash, and then bathe in it and gargle with it, and THEN we might see some pro-environmental action from these jokers.

    Memo to Republicans: bashing the EPA isn't going to increase your popularity with voters who are starting to realize that, in a Republican administration, clean water and air cannot be taken for granted. Better stick with anti-marriage amendments (though that's also losing steam quickly).

    As long as the GOP is in power, clean air and water need to be added to the list of critically endangered species.

  • spiritseeker Feb 18, 2014

    I said this before but it never did appear. I have little faith that our Republican legislators will approve a bill with any teeth in it or if it does that our governor will sign it and enforce it.

  • John Paul Bertke Feb 18, 2014
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    "I know it's hard on all news site to print story like this against one of their bigger customers, but I'm glad it out there..." - rebelyell55

    Good point! We criticize the media for its mistakes. But they provided an invaluable service to us all in this case, blowing a loud whistle when the public health is endangered by events that our political leadership preferred to hide.

    I take no pleasure from the circumstances that now envelope both Duke Energy and the McCrory administration, but in this case, the public health problems are much bigger than one company, one governor, or one political party.

    I look forward to WRAL's balanced coverage of the federal investigation, the court cases, and the ongoing process of the cleanup. It is important for the public to realize: there are now non-dissolving poisons (mercury, arsenic, and more) in our rivers and lakes.

  • Ijaz Fahted Feb 18, 2014
    user avatar

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    Ah yes, outrage at the wrong thing. You know, Sears optical has a two for one sale. You might want to get in on that.

    While you are upset over some misguided folks blaming McDuke for the spills you miss the point. You too should be outraged that your beloved McPope is stripping away our DENR, turning away federal funds for our ground water tests, and giving the fracking industry immunity from telling the public what chemicals they are pumping into our ground.

    When you get over your misplaced outrage, you can join the rest of us who are discussing the real issue: Pat "the environmentalist" McCrory.

  • John Paul Bertke Feb 18, 2014
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    View quoted thread

    :-) i'm sorry, rebelyell55, but Governor McCrory has not recognized you to make a comment about the coal ash disaster.

    But seriously, I hope those federal subpoenas will begin to determine Duke Energy's legal responsibility and dollar amounts for that liability.

    I also hope that the legality of passing those costs onto the victims (citizens of NC) will be aggressively challenged in the courts, as I don't expect much help from a hand-picked utilities commission.

    And I hope that the investigation will aggressively pursue the question of whether McCrory or any of his appointees crossed legal lines in attempts to shield Duke Energy from their legal obligations to the public.

    I thought I heard the humming of a thousand shredders in the night air from my porch last night, and a late night glow from lights in the windows of law offices... :-) or maybe it was just the moon.