Expert: Concerns about moving ash ponds 'pure speculation'

The state's top expert on coal ash ponds says concerns voiced by the McCrory administration about potential environmental damage from excavating leaky coal ash pits are "pure speculation."

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RALEIGH, N.C. — At Wednesday's press conference about the Dan River coal ash spill and state regulation, state Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla said requiring Duke Energy to excavate and relocate its coal ash ponds in North Carolina to lined landfills could pose a risk to the environment. 

DENR leaders confirmed that they've known for years that all 14 of Duke's coal ash sites are leaking toxins. And for years, environmentalists have been asking the state and Duke to move the ash into lined landfills away from vital water supplies.

Skvarla said Wednesday that's a "one-size-fits-all" solution that's too extreme. 

"[Environmentalists'] only acceptable remedy was dig them up, move them to lined landfills and cover them. We’re talking 14 facilities and 32 coal ash ponds. I can assure you, it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of science that has to go into making those kinds of determinations. There are environmental scientists who say that is the worst thing that can happen to the environment. The answer is, nobody knows at this point in time,” Skvarla said in his opening remarks to reporters. 

Gov. Pat McCrory echoed those concerns in an interview with WRAL News later Wednesday.

"The best case scenario is to move the ash ponds, but I also have to understand that, in some cases, that option may not be environmentally sound or may cause a worsening of the situation," McCrory said. "I think we need to let the experts determine the best way to determine the long-term solution."

WRAL News asked DENR for a citation or source for the alleged concerns about environmental risk, but DENR was unable to provide any citation. 

A renowned national expert on coal ash ponds at Duke University says that's because there isn't one.

Avner Vengosh of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment has published multiple studies on the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., and its aftermath.

Vengosh has also published several peer-reviewed studies on contamination from North Carolina coal ash sites in at least 11 lakes and rivers. His team has been sampling water all over the state, including downstream from the Dan River spill.

Told about Skvarla's comments, Vengosh says there's no published study that casts any doubt on whether moving coal ash out of leaky landfills is the best move for the environment. 

"What are they talking about? Of course not," Vengosh said in a phone interview with WRAL News. 

"If there is evidence of groundwater contamination and surface water contamination at the coal ash pond, then leaving it as is obviously isn’t an option if the environment is something you care about," he said. "You don’t need to be Joe Chemist to figure that out."

Vengosh said the decision about what to do with the landfills should be up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as it was in Tennessee, and not the state agency. 

"You should follow the EPA guidance," he said. "The state, with all due respect, doesn't have the experience or expertise on the matter." 

DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said Skvarla was not talking about excavating coal ash pits but about removing coal ash from a riverbed, which can be risky if contaminated sediment is disturbed.

"When he said 'those kinds of determinations,' he was obviously switching to talk about environmental remediation in general," Elliot said. "Remember that his point was that nobody knows right now, so it wouldn’t make any sense to say 'nobody knows' right after you say ‘that’s the worst thing you can do to coal ash ponds.’"

Elliot didn't respond to observations that Skvarla's comments were clearly about excavating ash pits, as were the governor's.