Coal ash ponds are making headlines in North Carolina, and the news isn’t good. Lee Jenkins has more on new proposed legislation and the state of coal ash pits in the eastern part of the state.
For starters, coal ash is a by-product of coal-burning power plants. It comes in two flavors – the light, more common fly ash and the heavier bottom ash. Both variants are slightly radioactive and highly carcinogenic, containing harmful compounds like chromium, arsenic, and lead. While modern day filtration equipment prevents more than 99% of the ash from escaping into the atmosphere, it still has to go somewhere. Most of it’s used to make concrete, while the rest is either buried in landfills or pumped into coal ash ponds.
A coal ash pond is essentially just that, a pond filled with toxic coal ash. Typically, they’re constructed right next to the steam plants that produce coal ash. In North Carolina, some of these plants happen to be next to rivers, and under certain conditions, they can discharge contaminated water from the ponds right into nearby bodies of water.
Ever since a coal ash pond leaked seventy miles worth of sludge into the Dan River in February, the structures, all owned by Duke Energy, have been subject to more intense scrutiny. Environment and Natural Resources Communications Officer Jamie Keitzer:
“The State Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been conducting a probe in the wake of the February 2 coal ash spill at the Dan River facility, and as a part of that probe, we have been looking at the infrastructure in the dams that surround the coal ash impoundments. We have found leaks in the pipe structures in those dams: the Cliffside plant, the Allen plant, River Bend, Buck, and Weatherspoon.”
Per state regulations, Duke Energy will be fined 500 dollars daily for every detected leak. These pipes will keep cameras inside them until they’re repaired. Coal ash leaks through more than just pipes, though; sometimes it comes through the walls of the dam. The DENR has been working to put a stop to that.
“The state of North Carolina did file lawsuits back in 2013 prior to the coal ash spill at the Dan River facility. Those lawsuits were based on the groundwater seepage and leaks that were coming from all of the coal ash impoundments in North Carolina.”
Those lawsuits are still outstanding. Ongoing leaks and seepages have entailed legislative action as well: a bill proposed in May originally that originally sought to close only the sites known to be hazardous now aims to require Duke Energy to close every one of its coal ash ponds within the next 15 years. According to Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brookes, that’s a lot of ash.
“It’s a total in North Carolina of about one hundred and two million tons of ash. You know, our closure engineering studies estimated it would take up to thirty years if we were to excavate all of those basins.”
The two largest plants in Eastern North Carolina, the Wilmington area’s Sutton Plant and the Goldsboro area’s H. F. Lee make up a little less than ten percent of that total.
“The Sutton plant has two basins on site that hold about 2.6 million tons of ash over about 135 acres, and then the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro has 5 basins, four that are inactive and are actually covered in forest and one that is semi-active and that has a total acreage of 314 acres and about 5 million tons of ash.”
The Sutton plant has had quite a few problems in recent years. In 2010, one of the basin’s walls broke, spilling toxic ash down the embankment. Recent studies have shown mutations in local fish populations, and fish kills have become more common. Duke Energy has even agreed to extend the public water system to area residents.
At H.F. Lee, reports show that contaminants have been seeping into the groundwater for years. Not only is the site five times larger than the Dan River facility, the only thing separating it from the river is a few yards of earthen berm.
Jeff Brookes of Duke Energy says that while the company aims to deal with the problems posed by coal ash ponds, the proposed legislation asks too much of the company.
“Excavation at one of our largest sites could potentially take up to thirty years. This legislation would require that all of our ash basins be addressed in fifteen years. While we agree that coal ash needs to be addressed in a timely fashion, the reality is that this bill places significant burden on the company to meet this deadline and this plan.”
The bill is currently making its way through committee, though it remains to be seen if it’ll make it to the Senate floor. For Public Radio East, I’m Lee Jenkins.