State says most coal ash ponds need to be excavated, not covered

Posted December 31, 2015

The coal ash ponds at the closed Cape Fear plant in Moncure must be drained and excavated and the ash moved to a lined landfill by 2024 under a draft report by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

— Coal ash needs to be removed from the majority of 32 basins across North Carolina where it has been stored for decades and moved to lined landfills in the next four to nine years, state environmental regulators said Thursday.

The Department of Environmental Quality released a draft report classifying the risks presented by each basin, which dictates how it will be closed under a 2014 state law. Final classifications will be set after a series of public hearings and more information is collected.

The agency also noted in its report that it still needs Duke Energy to provide more information on eight ash ponds so they can be classified.

"DEQ is committed to upholding the integrity of the coal ash law by making decisions based exclusively on science and public comment," Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at DEQ, said in a statement.

Environmental advocates, however, criticized the report, saying the state was backing off more stringent classifications made earlier and was calling for the excavation of coal ash primarily from sites where Duke has already agreed to remove it.

"Once again, the DEQ political leadership has failed to do its job to protect North Carolina’s clean water and communities," Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an email to WRAL News. "While its own professional staff was able to determine the risk of these dangerous sites and concluded that almost all of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites pose a high risk to North Carolina’s communities, DEQ determined that none are high risk, contrary to science and common sense."

The SELC represents more than a dozen environmental groups that have pressed Duke and DEQ in court for several years to clean up the ash ponds and stop toxins from leaking into nearby groundwater.

DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said Holleman was referring to an earlier draft "based on incomplete data," adding that the classifications released Thursday "reflect the latest environmental science."

The agency's rankings are based on risks to groundwater and surface water from ash pond leaks and the stability of the basins themselves.

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Explore the coal ash tests

Find out more about the state's ongoing tests of private and public wells near North Carolina's 14 coal ash locations. Click on a well marker to see the recommendations state health officials have issued in response to the tests, or select a Duke Energy plant to get an overview.

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.

A February 2014 spill from an ash pond at Duke's defunct Dan River plant near Eden that fouled 70 miles of the river prompted the state law that mandated the closure of all ash ponds by 2029. The law ranked the eight ash ponds at the Dan River plant, the Sutton plant in Wilmington, the Asheville plant and the Riverbend plant in Gaston County as high-risk, meaning the ash must be excavated from them and disposed of by the end of 2019.

Following DEQ's review, 12 other ash ponds – five each at the Cape Fear plant in Moncure and the Lee plant in Goldsboro and one each at the Roxboro plant and the the Weatherspoon plant in Lumberton – were classified as intermediate-risk, meaning Duke needs to dig up the ash there and dispose it by December 2024.

Regulators rated a second ash pond at the Roxboro plant, the pond at the Mayo plant in Person County and two ponds at the Rogers plant in Rutherford County as low-risk, which could allow Duke to merely drain the water from them and cover the ash with a liner and vegetation.

The remaining eight ponds – three at the Buck plant in Rowan County, two at the Allen plant in Gaston County and one each at the Rogers plant, the Marshall plant in Catawba County and the Belews plant in Stokes County – could fall into either the intermediate- or the low-risk category, DEQ said, but regulators need more information from Duke about groundwater contamination at each site before making that call.

"We are fully participating in this lengthy process, having provided the state with the most in-depth science and engineering studies experts have ever done around North Carolina ash basins," Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheheen said in an email to WRAL News. "We want to ensure NC DEQ has the information it needs for its evaluation, so in addition to meeting our commitments under CAMA, we’ve also given regulators new and supplemental information that they recently requested."

Duke has already started excavating ash from five of the sites and says it plans to build lined landfills at both the Dan River and Sutton plants.


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  • John McCray Jan 4, 2016
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    Many of the existing ash landfills are inadequately designed. quite a few were constructed with leaky or no liner whatsoever. New landfills have high standards for impermeable liners and caps. They also have better methods to handle leachate and remove and treat water trapped within the fill.

  • Roy Hinkley Jan 4, 2016
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    Perhaps your request will be granted when the final report is released by DEQ.

  • Jim Frei Jan 3, 2016
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    Has anyone considered the environmental impacts of digging new landfills and hauling the ash to these new landfills? Show me the science that says leaving it where it is and covering it is worse than moving it.

  • Joey Cuddington Dec 31, 2015
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    Up until a few years ago, The Lee Coal Generating Plant (known locally as Quaker Neck) used to give the coal ash away for folks to put out on their driveways and paths. We use to get it by the dump truck loads delivered all around the Richardson Bridge area along the Neuse River. What hasn't washed away, is still present. Is Duke Progress gonna do anything about this??? They knew what people were doing with it when they were giving it away!!!