The other coal fight: States try to drain toxic waste ponds

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 21, 2019

By David R. Baker


It’s the other dirty problem for U.S. coal — one that could cost utilities billions to clean up.

Even as the Trump administration tries to revive the industry, some states — including North Carolina — are pushing utilities including Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion Energy Inc. to finally deal with the ash left over from burning the fuel.

Utilities have for decades diluted the waste, which includes such toxins as arsenic, boron, lead and radium, and stored it in open pits called ponds. And while coal plants’ air pollution and greenhouse gases get more national attention, residents and officials in some states are now forcing plant operators to clean out their ponds.

Earlier this month, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to get rid of remaining ponds and remove ash to landfills with impermeable linings, a move that the company said could cost it $5 billion.

In March, Virginia’s governor signed a law requiring Dominion Energy to excavate its ponds, and South Carolina utilities pressed by lawsuits are emptying and closing theirs.

Typically separated from rivers and groundwater by clay, rocks and dirt, the ponds have at times burst, unleashing thousands of tons of waste into rivers in Tennessee and North Carolina. The spills in the Southeast, a Trump stronghold, have created pressure to act despite the administration’s ideology, said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with the Earthjustice environmental law group.

“There was political capital there on the side of doing more,” Evans said. “The locations of these large toxic disposal sites on treasured rivers tipped the scales toward more protection.”

Coal-ash ponds were for years considered the simplest disposal method, and hundreds dot the landscape from the Plains through the South. Environmentalists have long viewed them as slow-motion disasters. They say the ponds leach toxins into the water table year after year — even without major accidents like a 2008 spill near Knoxville, Tennessee, that buried 300 acres in slurry.

Utilities call those fears overblown, but President Barack Obama’s administration in 2015 required groundwater monitoring, closure of leaking ponds and a ban on new ones without an impermeable barrier. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency — whose administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist — last year loosened those rules, granting utilities more time to comply and giving states leeway to suspend monitoring.

Southeastern states are pushing forward anyway, and some neighbors feel a hard-won vindication.

“There’s many things you have to fight for in your life, but this is one thing that my children won’t have to fight for,” said Amy Brown, who lives near a pond in Belmont, North Carolina, west of Charlotte.

Brown has sparred with Duke since 2015, when the state advised her not to use well water for drinking or cooking because of elevated levels of vanadium and Chromium 6.

“I have two children, and I started thinking, ‘What have my children been exposed to?”‘ she said. “How much water had they drunk? How many pacifiers had I washed off? How many baths had they taken?”

Duke insists the chemicals occur naturally in nearby groundwater and says the state rescinded its warning. But the company, complying with a state law, paid to hook up Brown’s home to municipal water so she wouldn’t have to use her well.

Although the coal-ash issue simmered for years, recent spills pushed it to the fore. In 2014, a drainage pipe burst at a Duke pond in Eden, North Carolina, pouring 39,000 tons of ash waste into the Dan River, which supplies drinking water to both North Carolina and Virginia.

After Hurricane Florence last fall, floodwaters swamped two other Duke facilities, sending waste into the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers.

South Carolina almost suffered a similar fate. After Florence, the swollen Waccamaw River poured into an ash pond already excavated by the South Carolina Public Service Authority, better known as Santee Cooper. The utility mounted an all-out defense of an adjacent pit still being cleaned. The waters came within 6 inches of topping a portable barrier atop the dike.

“It totally inundated a pit that’d had a million tons in it, but the pit didn’t have any ash left in it,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Otherwise, you and I would have been talking about one of the worst environmental catastrophes in South Carolina history.”

Spills galvanized public pressure, even in a region where utilities have long enjoyed substantial clout. The area’s changing politics also may have played a role: Both Virginia and North Carolina currently have Democratic governors. North Carolina’s Roy Cooper campaigned on cleaning up ponds in his 2016 bid to oust Republican predecessor Pat McCrory, who had previously worked for Duke.

“We’ve seen the damage this pollution can do,” Cooper said in a statement after the state ordered Duke to excavate its ponds. “Now the cleanup of remaining coal ash needs to move ahead efficiently and effectively.”

Removing the contents, however, is neither speedy nor cheap, which is why many operators still resist it. Water must be slowly siphoned and cleaned. Solid waste must be excavated, along with soil below.

Utilities can build their own landfill with an impermeable barrier or truck the sludge to an existing one. Either way, the fill must be covered with another rain barrier.

Duke wanted the option to simply remove the water, cap the ponds and leave the ash in place. The company said that being made to excavate the North Carolina facilities will pile as much as $5 billion onto costs already estimated at $5.6 billion across the Carolinas.

Monitoring wells have found contaminants leaching into groundwater at the sites themselves, but tests farther away have found that chemicals attributed to the ponds are naturally present, said spokesman Bill Norton.

“It’s always right at our plant or right adjacent to it, but it hasn’t impacted anyone’s drinking water,” he said.

However, North Carolina officials decided removing the waste would best protect public health.

Environmentalists point to data that utilities file as part of the Obama-era rules. Earthjustice concluded that 91 percent of plants with ponds showed toxins in groundwater exceeding safety standards. They consider the industry’s high cost estimates — including Duke’s — a ploy.

“Industry has a history of grossly overinflating the cost of any environmental action it’s been required to do,” Evans said.