If state’s decision holds, coal ash must be excavated in Rowan

Published 12:10 am Thursday, May 19, 2016

By Josh Bergeron 


SALISBURY — There’s a caveat to Wednesday’s announcement by environmental regulators that all coal ash ponds across North Carolina must be dug up and closed by 2024.

When the Department of Environmental Quality announced priority rankings for cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, Buck Steam Station received the same classification as most locations — intermediate. As a result, Buck Steam Station must be excavated by 2024. A select few in other locations have been designated as high priority and must been cleaned up by an earlier deadline.

When asked, environmental groups were upbeat about Wednesday’s rankings. Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, however, called it “the most extreme option.” Although Good didn’t provide an exact cost, capping coal ash in place would cost less than excavation. She said capping coal ash in place and excavation are both safe.

The priority rankings come after a month of input about the state’s draft ratings. Initially, Buck Steam Station received a “low-to-intermediate” rating because Duke Energy didn’t submit enough information. Nearly 200 people showed up at a March public hearing held in Salisbury and overwhelmingly supported the excavation of coal ash. More than 900 submitted written comments to DEQ.

Without changes to the state’s Coal Ash Management Act, priority ratings become final in 60 days.

But theres a caveat.

DEQ plans to ask state legislators for permission to re-evaluate the rankings in 18 months after repairs are made to dams at coal ash ponds. Deadlines contained in state law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed, said DEQ secretary Donald R. Van Der Vaart.

Under current law, the re-evaluation wouldn’t be allowed. If granted, DEQ’s request could allow several ponds to be downgraded to a low priority, which allows for the cap-in-place solution.

In a conference call, Good said the caveat in Wednesday’s announcement shows the state recognizes its current information about coal ash ponds is incomplete.

“Work is ongoing and more data is necessary in order to get to a final resolution,” she said.

In a news release, Van der Vaart also said the state’s data is incomplete.

“The focus of the coal ash law was to safely close all coal ash ponds in North Carolina,” Van der Vaart said. “The intent was not to set pond closure deadlines based on incomplete information. Making decisions based on incomplete information could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when spending millions now would provide equal or better protection.”

At Buck Steam Station, the uncompleted repairs include replacing an outlet pipe used to drain water in coal ash ponds and removing any trees that are located on dams. DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher said the trees can negatively affect structural integrity of dams.

The billions-to-millions cost difference referenced by Van der Vaart could occur if environmental regulators allow Duke to cap ponds in place instead of requiring excavation. While she wouldn’t explicitly say it in Wednesday’s conference call, Good hinted that Duke Energy customers might pick up the bill for coal ash cleanup.

“Decommissioning of coal sites is part of the cost of service of rendering electricity, providing electricity, to customers,” she said. “So, (coal ash) is a byproduct of providing coal for decades and communities have benefitted from low-cost electricity for decades … but I think it’s important to note that cost recovery is under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina Utility Commission.”

Meanwhile, a number of environmental groups who issued a prepared statement, gave an interview or had an opinion on Wednesday’s priority rankings saw the 18-month caveat as a political maneuver.

“DEQ tries to bend the law, ignore the law or now change the law to benefit Duke Energy,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman. “Since DEQ can’t avoid the clear facts, the clear science, the clear law, it says ‘after the election we’re going to go to the legislature and ask to give Duke permission to leave its ash in unlined pits in our groundwater and next to our rivers.'”

Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said environmental regulators only partially responded to the overwhelming public opinion that coal ash ponds need to be excavated and closed. In turn, Duke now has a chance to flex its political influence, Scott said.

“DEQ responded to public pressure today by rating all sites intermediate but left the door open to political pressure from Duke by looking for a ‘do over’ from the legislature 18 months from now,” Scott said. “We know from Duke’s own engineering reports that the Buck site is leaking over 70,000 gallons of water a day into the Yadkin River, much of it contaminated. That’s why we will continue to press our federal Clean Water Act lawsuit to require immediate clean up based on the facts on the ground, not political decisions from Raleigh.”

If Buck Steam Station’s priority rating holds up, the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act would require Duke Energy to submit closure plans to DEQ by December 2017. If Buck Steam Station’s rating drops to low, closure plans would be due at a later date. Final closure wouldn’t be required until 2029.

The ratings released Wednesday were initially expected to be final, but environmental groups remarked that instead the process unnecessarily was extended. It’s the latest in a lengthy saga that began years ago for coal ash communities.

Following a massive collapse at the Dan River plant, lawmakers worked to pass the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, which set up requirements for well water testing and closure plans.

Nearly every well in Dukeville has tested higher than the state’s standards and health screening levels for chemicals that include hexavalent chromium. Initially, most wells near coal ash ponds across North Carolina were declared unsafe to drink. State officials later revised that recommendation, and stress that water meets federal standards.

However, contaminants in many wells in communities such as Dukeville test higher than municipal water. Some test hundreds or thousands of times higher.

Duke has repeatedly said its coal ash ponds are not contaminating nearby water wells, but Good hinted at the possibility that communities affected by coal ash could see hookups to municipal water systems. She said the company has “opened up discussions” with DEQ that include extending water lines. It would provide coal ash neighbors with “peace of mind,” she said.

For Dukeville resident Deborah Graham, there’s only one wish.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we want full cleanup of all coal ash sites,” Graham said. “This just looks like DEQ is playing games, since we don’t really know if or when the coal ash will ever be cleaned up.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.