Officials: Spencer safe despite EPA report
By Mark Wineka
Local officials and Duke Energy tried to reassure citizens Tuesday that the coal ash ponds connected to the Buck Steam Station along the Yadkin River are safe, despite their placement on a federal list as “potentially highly hazardous.”
Spencer officials, in particular, were blind-sided that the Environmental Protection Agency listed their town as one of 26 communities in 10 states most threatened by coal ash ponds similar to the one that flooded in Tennessee last Dec. 22.
The first they heard of Spencer’s inclusion on the list was when they read a Salisbury Post headline Tuesday morning.
“Why didn’t it say Rowan County instead of Spencer?” Mayor Jody Everhart said, recalling his first reaction. “… Spencer has no control over what they (the Buck Steam Station) do. It’s the county.”
If one of the earthen dams were to rupture at the steam station and release the contents of the ash ponds, Spencer likely would not be affected, unless the contamination went upstream by about a mile, Town Manager Larry Smith said.
Given the topography, people downstream of the ponds would suffer the most impact.
Everhart also stressed that Spencer is probably about 4 miles from Buck Steam Station and well removed even from the town’s extra-territorial zoning jurisdiction.
The EPA listed Spencer as the community most threatened only because it is geographically the closest town to Buck, officials said.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy has reiterated, as it did in a Post report in January, that the ash ponds at Buck are safe and routinely inspected.
The Post reported in January that the Buck Steam Station property includes three coal ash ponds covering some 119 acres. A Duke spokesman said at the time the company’s ash ponds systemwide have passed annual and five-year inspections and were in compliance with existing state and federal regulations.
Duke Energy added Buck Steam Station’s most recent pond in 1983, and of the three ponds on site, one is considered primary and the other two are secondary.
The primary basin collects the ash-water slurry, allowing the ash to settle out. The second and third basins are used for additional water clarification. The ponds are contained by earthen dams, and their footprint on the site does not change.
Together they hold about 5 million pounds of coal ash. The steam station dates back to 1926 and is the oldest plant with coal-fired units in Duke’s system.
Last Dec. 22, a rupture of a coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee sent more than a billion gallons of possibly toxic sludge toward the Emory River and covered some 300 acres. Over its path, the spill destroyed or damaged at least 45 homes and other properties.
Residents had to be evacuated. Local wells were put off limits out of fear of contamination from arsenic and other heavy metals.
Coal ash represents coal combustion waste. These same contaminants once went through the smokestacks and into the air. The coal ash can be captured as solid waste and stored in huge piles or sent to landfills.
A cheaper method is to put the waste in surface ponds.
Frank Thomason, head of emergency management for Rowan County, said one concern he and others have is that citizens will hear about the EPA list and make the assumption that Buck’s coal ash ponds are a hazard already.
“When a person in the general public reads that, or looks at that, he sees a potential problem with the dam,” Thomason said of the EPA list, “and that certainly is not the case in this instance.
“It simply says the type of material being stored in the impoundment and volume in the impoundment make it a high hazard potential. It has nothing to do with the dam itself.”
Smith, the Spencer town manager, and Thomason had conversations with Duke Energy District Manager Randy Welch Tuesday, and Welch reviewed the inspections Duke has done at the station.
“It sounds like it’s safe,” Smith said.
Thomason said Rowan County has been in “pretty close contact” with Duke Energy since the Tennessee incident and described all the information from the company as “forthright” and “up front.”
“We knew it was out there,” Thomason said. “… Duke has a very proactive stance on all their facilities like this.”
In a statement, Duke Energy said it supports the EPA objective to ensure ash basin dam safety.
“We have a comprehensive, robust monitoring, maintenance and inspection program in place for all of our coal ash basin dams and remain committed to operating and maintaining these facilities safely,” the company said.
In early 2009, the company said, it reviewed the most current ash basin inspection reports, verifying that all recommendations contained in those reports had been implemented or were being addressed.
“Duke Energy is confident, based on our monitoring, maintenance and inspections, that each of our ash basin dams has the structural integrity necessary to protect the public and the environment,” the company said.
Duke Energy Carolinas’ ash basin dams are inspected annually by a licensed professional engineer and every five years by an independent licensed professional engineer.
In the mid 1980s, the N.C. Utilities Commission assigned a “high hazard potential” rating to the ash basin dams at six of Duke Energy’s North Carolina plant sites.
In general terms, Duke says, “high hazard potential” classification is an engineering evaluation based on the height of the dam or impoundment, the volume of liquid and solid materials it contains and the proximity to people and property that would be vulnerable to damage in the event of a failure.
The hazard potential classification is based solely on the relative potential hazard if the dam were to be compromised and does not reflect in any way on the current condition of the dam, the company said.
Thomason said it was “kind of unfortunate” that the EPA list named Spencer as the community threatened by the coal ash ponds at Buck Steam Station.
“Spencer is not in the area that would be affected” by a break in one of the dams, he added.
Smith said the EPA list naming Spencer as a threatened community “raised a few eyebrows” and led to Mayor Everhart’s receiving numerous calls and e-mails.
“Buck Steam Plant and Duke Power have been good neighbors,” Everhart said. “Hopefully, they know how to contain it and keep a check on it. Hopefully, their expertise or access to expertise will keep us in a good environment.”