Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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."