State says most coal ash ponds need to be excavated, not covered
Posted December 31, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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.