Coal Ash: A Growing Environmental Concern in NC

Julia Knoerr ‘21

Senior Staff Writer

While coal ash often gains recognition for its improper storage methods, large spills, and toxic components, North Carolina’s slow steps to implement site closures offer insight into the political power of the state’s bureaucratic energy monopoly. 

In January 2019, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hosted public meetings to discuss the future of coal ash basin closure across North Carolina. The open houses allowed community members to provide input on the closure process and voice concerns.

Coal ash, a powdery substance that remains after burning coal to generate electricity, presents a number of potential environmental and public health issues.

 Over the past century, roughly 150 million tons of coal ash have collected at Duke Energy’s 14 current and prior plants in North Carolina. The Marshall Steam Station, located on Lake Norman just 14 miles from Davidson, holds 16,836,000 tons of coal ash. According to DEQ, Mooresville has the most structural fill sites of any area in the state.

Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, argues Duke Energy could have easily prevented coal ash pollution through initial storage design. He explained, “Generating electricity from coal does not produce a coal ash water waste stream. It produces a dry ash, but the utilities…have voluntarily created a water pollution problem for their own convenience.” Rather than transporting ash to a nearby dry land facility, Holleman illustrated, “they shut water out of the water body nearby, in this case Lake Norman, and mixed it with the ash…[They] then relied on the force of gravity to simply flush the now slushed ash downhill through a ditch or a pipe, into an unlined pit.”

 Comparatively, Duke Energy representative Bill Norton suggests that Duke simply followed common practice. He offered, “It all has to do with the age of the facility. Coal ash basins were the industry standard in the 1950s and 60s…Marshall began operations in 1965.” The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation’s Brandon Jones confirmed over e-mail that unlined coal ash basins were an industry standard nationwide. 

Furthermore, Norton claims groundwater contamination does not present safety concerns, though EPA data found 95% of basins have leaked into rivers and groundwater supplies. Emphasizing distinctions between groundwater, drinking water and recreational water, Norton asserted, “The impacts that we are seeing are in the groundwater immediately below and right next to our ash basin, which is exactly where you expect to find impacts…The groundwater is not impacting drinking supplies; it’s not impacting the lake adversely.”

 Holleman insisted storage methods present risks. Instead of concrete dams, unlined pits rely only on dikes made of earth to contain coal waste products. Holleman elaborated, “This waste contains heavy metals made of toxic substances like arsenic and lead and mercury, sitting in water so that they can be…leached or discharged into groundwater supplies and the neighboring water supply.” Groundwater and surface water contamination raise possible concerns for public drinking water, fish, and recreational water supplies.

Moreover, large spills in Kingston, TN, and Eden, NC ignited attention towards environmental and economic hazards, leading the federal government to promise strong regulations. Yet Holleman noted that “by 2011…[we] saw the government process in gridlock due to heavy lobbying by the utilities, and the state hadn’t done one thing to clean up this coal ash problem.” While the 2014 Dan River spill motivated North Carolina to pass the Coal Management Act, Holleman characterized the act as “political cover for the legislature and the governor at that time.”

In comparison, three utility companies in South Carolina agreed to fully excavate coal ash from all unlined pits. In Virginia, Dominion Energy supported state legislation for full excavation at all four of its coal ash sites. Holleman questioned, “Why can’t Duke do what every utility in South Carolina and the state of Virginia is doing?…Why doesn’t every community deserve some kind of protection?”

While utility companies also hold enormous political influence in other states, Holleman emphasized, “North Carolina stands out in our region because it has allowed Duke Energy to get a monopoly over every part of the state to be the single electricity provider.” This means that Davidson College is a customer of Duke Energy.

Norton paints a different picture. Describing the relationship between the state and Duke Energy, Norton remarked, “They’re the regulator, we’re the company being regulated… Everything must comply with limits regulators establish to protect neighbors and the environment.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has been involved in numerous legal suits against Duke Energy. Beginning in 2012, the SELC began identifying dangerous storage, pollution, and law violations at every site. Holleman highlighted their success, noting, “Duke Energy’s operating counties in North Carolina pleaded guilty eighteen times to nine different coal ash crimes across the state of North Carolina in 2015, had to pay fines of a $106 million, [and were sentenced to] criminal probation…”

Moving forward, DEQ is responsible for 14 coal ash ponds’ closures. Michael Cooper, a DEQ representative, shared in an e-mailed response that “Under CAMA [the Coal Ash Management Act], DEQ operates under a slightly different framework than neighboring states but the goal is closing coal ash impoundment facilities with a plan that best meets the needs of the community.”

CAMA orders full excavation of high, intermediate, and low risk sites, but it only calls for closure of high risk sites by December 31st, 2019. Marshall falls under a low risk rating, meaning the bill does not require its closure until December 31st, 2029. 

However, Jones revealed that site ratings may not accurately represent potential hazard, explaining, “after almost all of their sites were deemed [high risk], Duke successfully lobbied the state to amend CAMA and allow them to reduce hazard rating.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency outlines three closure options: capping in place, excavation, and a hybrid of the two. Duke Energy will receive feedback on their closure options analysis by April 1st and must submit final plans by August 1st. State law mandates basin closures by 2029.

Duke Energy’s preferred option, capping in place, first involves dewatering the basin and removing the pond. Duke then compiles the ash in the middle of the basin, grades it, and covers it with a waterproof barrier and drainage layer to keep rainwater out. While Duke states all closure options are safe, Jones observes that ash stored beneath the water table could enter groundwater and flow offsite. 

 Alternatively, many environmental groups advocate for excavation as the least hazardous option. Excavation entails transferring the coal ash from unlined basins to landfills, either on or off-site. However, “it would end up being a three-decade and more than a billion dollar project,” Norton emphasized. Regardless of storage method, Jones identifies the risk of potential liner rips or failures and calls for consistent inspections. 

Finally, recycling enables utilities to repurpose coal waste products. Jones advocates for following South Carolina’s lead to recycle coal ash into concrete, though he notes that not all ash can be recycled. Outlining Duke Energy’s position, Norton offered, “we’re proponents of ash recycling where it makes sense. At a larger site, like Marshall, it would take 45 years to recycle all the ash, and state and federal deadlines don’t allow for that.”

To guide six of the coal ash basin closures, DEQ’s January meetings provided space for constituent feedback and questions. Cooper shared, “Each featured Assistant Secretary Shelia Holman and representatives from the Division of Waste Management, the Division of Water Resources and the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.” However, Duke Energy stated that DEQ asked that their company not have a role to avoid influencing the process.

A handful of Davidson students also attended the Marshall Station meeting on January 17th, held at Sherrills Ford Elementary School. Completely full, the meeting turned attendees away.

For students and community members interested in taking action, options include attending public meetings, submitting comments to marshallcomments@ncdenr.gov and allencomments@ncdenr.gov by February 15th, and signing a Change.org petition regarding Marshall Steam Station. Constituents can also call Governor Cooper or local legislators to voice opinions.

2/19/19 A previous version of this article misidentified CAMA as standing for the Coastal Area Management Act.

2/19/19 A previous version of this article misstated that CAMA only required the excavation of high-risk sites.

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