NC issues first permit to drain coal ash ponds
Posted December 3, 2015
Updated December 4, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — State regulators on Thursday issued the first permit to Duke Energy so the utility can begin draining coal ash ponds at a former power plant near Wilmington.
The L.V. Sutton Steam Plant is the first facility in North Carolina to receive a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System wastewater permit, which is required to remove the wet ash. The state Department of Environmental Quality said dry ash is already being removed from Sutton and three other Duke plants across the state that are considered high priority under a 2014 law.
"Duke Energy may now begin dewatering its coal ash ponds at the Sutton facility in preparation for excavation and removal," Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at DEQ, said in a statement. "We will continue to monitor this project closely to ensure that public health and the environment are protected."
Coal ash is the material that's left over when coal is burned for fuel. While much of it is inert, it does contain thallium, mercury, lead and other materials harmful to humans and wildlife. For decades, the ash has been stored in unlined pits and often mixed with water.
DEQ levied a record $25.1 million fine against Duke in March for groundwater contamination at the Sutton site, but after the company appealed, the fine was cut to $7 million in September as part of a deal that covers tainted groundwater at all of Duke's ash ponds statewide.
Despite its checkered environmental history, Sutton was granted the first NPDES permit because, officials said, it is the only plant where the ash ponds don't have "seeps," or wastewater emerging from the ground nearby. Seeps have delayed federal approvals for dewatering ash ponds at other Duke sites.
"While we have already begun work moving ash from dry storage areas at the site, the bulk of the ash at Sutton Plant is located in ash basins. These basins contain water that must be removed before excavation can begin," Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email to WRAL News. "Receiving this permit allows us to move forward with this important work to comply with state law and permanently close ash basins at Sutton Plant."
Under the permit, officials will have to limit the draining of the Sutton ponds to 1 foot per week and check wastewater discharges weekly.
DEQ has issued permits to remove dry ash from Sutton, the Dan River Steam Station near Eden, the Asheville Plant and the Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly. The coal ash must be removed from all four by August 2019 under a law the General Assembly passed last year in the wake of a spill at the Dan River plant that fouled about 70 miles of the river.
Dry ash removal permits also have been issued for the Mayo Power Station near Roxboro, the Allen Steam Station in Belmont, the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman and the Rogers Energy Complex in Cleveland County. Under the 2014 law, a state commission is studying the situation at these four plants and Duke's other coal-fired plants in North Carolina to set deadlines for closing their ash ponds, but all must be closed by 2029.
"We remain committed to meeting all deadlines in the coal ash law and overseeing the closure of all coal ash sites as quickly and safely as possible," Reeder said.
Some of the dry ash is being dumped in a former clay mine near Moncure, while other ash is being used to level ground for taxiways at the Asheville Regional Airport.