On Dec. 16, and without fanfare, President Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act of 2016. Though he didn’t mention it in his official statement, the bill contains an amendment that alters how coal ash will be regulated, with more oversight afforded to the states.
The WIIN Act is an infrastructure bill designed to fund dams, control floods, aid California farmers and provide clean water for residents in Flint, Michigan. Cost estimates for the bill range between $10 billion and $12 billion.
The bill also establishes a state permit program for coal ash impoundments to be supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That amendment is a win for the U.S. House of Representatives, which has, since 2011, seven times – including the WIIN Act –passed legislation aimed at altering the EPA’s efforts to regulate coal ash.
“This is an issue that we’ve worked on since coming to Congress six years ago, and I am pleased that we are finally able to reach an agreement between the House and Senate,” said Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) in a statement about the passage of WIIN Act earlier this month. “This legislation will help protect 316,000 jobs while empowering individual states to ensure the proper management and disposal of coal ash,” he said.
It’s McKinley’s abbreviated coal ash bill that became an amendment to the WIIN Act.
The Water and Waste Act of 2016 is also included in the bill. The purpose of that Act is that “Congress should provide robust funding of capitalization grants to States to fund those States’ drinking water treatment revolving loan funds,” with emphasis on underserved communities. That Act could benefit the citizens of North Carolina with contaminated well water.
Summary of the coal ash amendment
The bill amends the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), changing the EPA’s self-implementing coal ash rule into an EPA-authorized state permit program. The EPA will only approve of the state programs if they incorporate already-established federal requirements.
The states, however, do not have to participate. If they don’t, the federal coal ash rule remains in effect.
Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel for Earthjustice, explains: “When a state does not submit a program for approval, the requirements of the EPA’s [coal ash] rule remain in effect in that state. ”For states that have no approved program, the EPA must implement a permit program in that state, but only if Congress provides funding for the EPA to do so.”
Until the EPA approves a state permit program, the federal rule remains in effect for all states. Once a state plan is submitted, the EPA has 180 days to make a decision and may approve a permit program in whole or in part, or not at all. The public will be asked to comment on state plans.
Under RCRA, the public retains citizen enforcement authority, or the right to sue over violations of the federal rule or permit violations once the state programs are in force.
The state permit programs will be reviewed by the EPA every 12 years. They will also be reviewed en masse should the agency update its rule, though states will have three years to comply with any changes. The EPA can also review the permit program following a significant, unauthorized release from a coal ash impoundment or when one state is adversely impacted by incidents in another state.
North Carolina well-suited for permit program
With its Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 and the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission currently at work on a coal-ash rule that closely mirrors the EPA’s existing coal ash rule, North Carolina seems well-suited to be a successful participant in the federal government’s new state-controlled permit program.
The state’s Environmental Management Commission began the process of merging the state’s coal ash laws with the EPA’s rule earlier this year and is expected to vote on one or more versions of its rule during its Jan. 12, 2017, meeting. That vote was delayed in November following a dispute over which groundwater standards to include in the rule, the EPA’s, the more stringent state-specific standards or none at all. The vote will be followed by a public comment period.
Regarding the WIIN Act, Mike Rusher, Communication Director for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality says, “I don’t believe there are any required changes to N.C.’s already planned implementation of the federal [coal ash] rule.” He did not say if the state plans to submit its rule and regulation to the EPA for approval as a permit program.
Environmental advocates wary
“Prior to the recently enacted federal legislation, North Carolina had taken steps towards adopting the federal rule, more or less verbatim,” says Peter Harrison, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Regulators balked once Congress took up the bill, which affords states latitude to interpret, and potentially weaken, the requirements in the federal rule. I would expect to see a new proposal for a state permit program soon, with amendments to the federal language tailored to accommodate Duke Energy.”
“North Carolina is in a good position for a state program,” says Amy Adams, a N.C. Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “The question is: Do they want to work with the EPA?”
North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality is one of 24 states currently suing the U.S. EPA over its Clean Power Plan. DEQ has also repeatedly butted heads with the federal agency over coal ash issues since the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill in Eden, N.C.
North Carolina officials have delayed a vote on a key coal ash rule amid a dispute over whether state or federal groundwater standards should be part of the rule.
At its November meeting, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission declined to vote on the state Department of Environmental Quality’s proposed language for its coal ash rule after the chair questioned the inclusion of the state’s groundwater standards. The state’s standards are unique to North Carolina and more stringent than federal standards.
Approximately half of North Carolinians rely on groundwater for drinking water, either from private wells or public water supplies.
The rule will establish requirements for corrective measures in the event of groundwater contamination caused by coal ash impoundments. The commission is expected to vote on the rule in January. The vote will be followed by a public comment period.
Currently, two rule options are before the commission: one does not include groundwater standards and the other includes only North Carolina’s groundwater standards.
During the commission’s Nov. 10 meeting, DEQ staff mentioned that a third version of the rule is being prepared. That version would include only federal groundwater standards, or Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the MCL standards represent “the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water.”
“The MCLs are simply a backstop that’s applicable in every state in the Union,” said Commissioner Tommy Craven, a professional engineer. “Some states don’t do the additional study to figure out what’s applicable to them, but that’s really what was intended: if they did the study they’d have their own numbers, but they can’t be less than MCLs.”
The proposed rules are in response to a coal ash bill passed by the N.C. General Assembly in July which allows for impoundments to be closed in accordance with the EPA’s coal ash rule, thus forcing DEQ to add an official rule to the state code.
Commission chair prefers federal standards
The proposed rule closely mirrors the EPA’s coal ash rule. In September, the commission’s Groundwater and Waste Management Committee requested additional information on the state’s groundwater standards following a presentation on the proposed state rule.
Julie Woosley, DEQ Section Chief with the Hazardous Waste Section, provided an update on the rule at the Nov. 9 Groundwater and Waste Management committee meeting. In her PowerPoint presentation, she included a table that lists both federal standards and state groundwater standards (noted as 2L and IMAC, or interim maximum allowable concentrations).
Gerard “Jerry” Carrol, chair of the Environmental Management and retiree of National Gypsum Company, said he worried about confusing the public by listing both state and federal groundwater standards and that he would “argue toward aligning ourselves more toward the federal standards than the 2L standards.” Later he asked why the state and federal governments have different standards.
Woosley responded, “You can see that the federal standard is always different from the 2L standards, except in the case of arsenic, and it is usually a much lesser standard.” She also explained that the list of contaminants shared during her presentation are the same as those listed in the federal coal ash rule.
The Environmental Management Commission establishes North Carolina’s groundwater standards—with input from DEQ and the state Department of Health and Human Services – according to the lowest of the following criteria: a concentration protective of non-cancerous or systemic health effects that also corresponds to an incremental lifetime cancer risk of one-in-one-million, taste and odor thresholds, the EPA’s MCL standards or the National Secondary Drinking Water Standard.
Dr. Albert Robert Ruben, an EMC commissioner and professor emeritus at N.C. State University countered Carrol by saying, “My preference is to look at the most restrictive standard because that is what is most protective. The implications of this decision are significant.”
Along with the commission’s vice chair, Kevin C. Martin, a soil scientist, Ruben urged the committee to forward both versions of the rule to the full commission the next day, providing both for public comment.
Following the advice of the committee, the commission delayed its vote on the rule until its January 12, meeting, though it is unclear if a third version – with only federal standards – will be presented.
DEQ officials did not wish to comment on a potential third version of the rule.
In the South, most states lack state-specific standards
An April 2016 memo from DEQ’s Director of Legislative Affairs, Mollie Young, to the North Carolina General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission relayed the findings of a review of environmental and health regulations in other southeastern states as they pertain to hexavalent chromium and vanadium groundwater standards. (Both contaminants were listed in “do-not-drink” letters sent to hundreds of North Carolina well owners in 2015.)
“None of the southeastern states have groundwater standards in regulation for hexavalent chromium. However, Alabama has a ‘protective value’ identified as a ‘Risk Assessment Preliminary Screening Value’ (for hexavalent chromium),” Young wrote. She also noted: “None of the southeastern states have adopted vanadium criteria in regulation.”
North Carolina’s current standard for total chromium, which includes hexavalent chromium, is 10 ug/L. North Carolina and California share this standard, which the lowest in the United States. The federal standard is 100 ug/L.
The federal government does not require city water supplies to monitor for vanadium, and only eight states have groundwater standards for vanadium. North Carolina does not have a groundwater standard for vanadium.
In October, Duke University found that hexavalent chromium is widespread in North Carolina’s groundwater. The study’s press release stated, “The contamination doesn’t, however, stem from leaking coal ash ponds as many people feared after state officials tested wells near coal plants last year and detected potentially harmful levels of hexavalent chromium in the water.”
CORRECTION: The article mistakenly listed standard measurements as “mg/L,” or parts per million, instead of “ug/L,” or per billion.
Deadlines in North Carolina’s coal ash law have some worried that Duke Energy may choose recycling options that could leave prospective concrete customers unsatisfied and much of its coal ash inventory in wet impoundments.
Henry Batten, president of Concrete Supply Co. in Charlotte, says he is committed to buying Duke Energy’s recycled coal ash even though he says it will cost him more than purchasing imported Asian ash. However, because of state law, he questions whether Duke Energy can choose to build the type of reprocessing plant that produces ash that, he says, “is 100 percent consumable by us without question; in fact, I would take it all day, every day if I could get it.”
Citing geopolitical concerns, he says having a regional source of coal ash that meets international and state specifications for concrete is critical for his company. But his preferred process for beneficiation – optimizing the ash for use in concrete — is the most expensive, and Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) deadlines don’t seem to leave room for facilities with long enough lifespans to justify the investment.
Between its North and South Carolina operations, Batten reports that his company “consumes about 2.1 to 2.5 million tons of ash annually,” adding, “I’m probably the largest consumer of ash in the Carolinas, and I made a commitment that I would buy that ash because I need a reliable source.”
“We feel like the better informed we are, the better we can make decisions, and the better we can advocate for those people who will be most affected,” says, Caroline Armijo, a member of ACT, who says she never imaged herself advocating for the concrete industry.
North Carolina law requires Duke Energy to create three beneficiation plants capable of annually producing 300,000 tons of ash “to specifications appropriate for cementitious products” from wet waste impoundments.
The law also requires the company to announce siting for two of the three plants by Jan. 1, 2017, and a third by July 1, 2017. In October, as part of a lawsuit settlement, Duke identified its Buck plant, in Salisbury, North Carolina, as one of the three sites.
The company could go with one or more of multiple options at the two additional plants, and those options could be provided by different vendors; the technology used at each plant could vary since the technology selected must be site-specific.
The associated costs range from less than $5 million for dry-ash-handling only to more than $50 million for thermal beneficiation that can process both wet and dry ash. It’s the latter that produces the quality of ash Batten wants for his concrete company.
A market study, to be presented to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission on Nov. 9, states, “To our knowledge, the only large scale commercial operation in the U.S. that is currently processing wet ash is the SEFA STAR process.”
Another company, PMI Ash Technologies, based in Raleigh, is listed as a thermal beneficiation company for dry ash using its Carbon Burn Out process, but CEO Lisa Cooper says her company is also qualified to handle wet ash.
Both she and Jimmy Knowles, Vice President of Market Development and Research at The SEFA Group, headquartered in Lexington, South Carolina, say that the $50 million price tag represents the high end of the price range for thermal facilities at large coal-fired plants, but that it’s not an unreasonable estimate.
“The cited all-in cost above would be for a large plant, probably with a maximum feed rate approaching 500,000 tons per year,” says Knowles. “The design for an ash beneficiation plant at any of the Duke Energy sites in N.C. would probably be similar in size.”
Cooper says the price estimate likely includes storage, an important consideration during winter months when there is less construction activity. She says storage costs could be mitigated through agreements with ash marketers.
A site’s location could also drive beneficiation costs up. “We have a nice plant in Georgetown, South Carolina,” says Knowles, “but between the seismic zone it’s in and hurricane issues, there were all kinds of additional costs that were built into it that increased the costs.”
Duke Energy could also save by mixing and matching its options, installing the more expensive, but smaller-scale, thermal option along with less expensive dry-ash processors, enabling its ability to upgrade or expand its ash processing in the future in response to market conditions.
The company has only begun the process of requesting information from the companies and declined to comment on vendor-related matters.
Duke could be competitive on coal ash
The market study, produced by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research and Golder Associates, indicates that Duke Energy is well positioned to turn coal ash into a revenue stream with its “competitive advantage” in North Carolina. The study also noted that Duke might be competitive in several other states as well and that annual demand for coal ash is increasing.
In fact, demand is so high that Batten says the controversial “cap-in-place” closure method isn’t a deterrent. Capping an impoundment, however, would add to closure expenses.
“We would hope that every plant that ever gets capped would eventually allow us, or someone like us, to harvest that ash for reuse in concrete because it’s better – it’s a more sustainable option than leaving it in the impoundments,” says Batten.
“We are exploring how cap-in-place designs can be used to allow for potential coal ash recycling,” says Duke Energy spokesperson Zenica Chatman, adding that in Florida the company is harvesting previously capped ash to meet market demand there.
North Carolina ratepayers could pay for the beneficiation plants, but they could also benefit from them.
Currently, according to Chatman, “The company does not profit from ash sales in North Carolina. If we have a profit in the net sale of ash byproducts, North Carolina customers get the benefit. If we have a net loss, the company may recover the losses through the fuel clause.”
Deadlines not beneficial
According to the study, “Beneficiation will be most attractive at those facilities that will eventually require excavation of the ponded ash, do not have an alternative use (e.g. clay mine fill), and have a minimum 15 to 20-year period to evaluate, design, construct, and operate a beneficiation facility.”
Deadlines were mentioned as an impediment, however, though the 2016 law allowsthe secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality to extend the deadlines.
Currently, the deadline for closing intermediate-risk impoundments is August 1, 2028, and the deadline for closing impoundments at plants with beneficiation processing is Dec. 31, 2029, both allowing for less time than the study’s stated minimum timeframe.
The lifespan of a thermal beneficiation plant is estimated to be 30 years.
No one seems to know how the deadlines in CAMA were determined. Duke Energy said to ask the legislators, but each legislator asked either didn’t respond or suggested that another legislator be asked.
“I can say that closure deadlines are one of the factors that we look at in determining where these units will ultimately be located,” said Chatman. “Sites with closure deadlines in the 2028-2029 time frame are better candidates for recycling since it allows you time to recycle a substantial amount of material, making the investment more cost competitive with other closure options.”
Duke Energy estimates it has 158 million tons of coal ash stored in impoundments and landfills at the company’s 14 North Carolina plants, with 124 million tons at its active plants. At the rate of 900,000 tons per year, it would take 138 years to beneficiate its current inventory at active plants (assuming no waste ash, and not counting gypsum, which is also recycled from coal ash).
Despite lower ash production as the company’s energy mix shifts more toward natural gas, the study predicts Duke Energy will continue to produce more than a million tons of ash annually for the foreseeable future.
Ash that is not beneficiated will be relegated to landfills or left in wet impoundments.
Ash quality matters
Southern bakers know that the wrong flour can ruin their biscuits. The same goes for concrete made with coal ash.
The market study states that thermal beneficiation processing “is a proven and highly flexible technology that can operate on a variety of ash types with a wide range of carbon concentration. It produces an ash that is low or even free of carbon. It also eliminates ammonia from fly ashes impacted by nitrous oxide controls. In addition, the process also produces ash with improved fineness by liberating the very small particles that are trapped in the carbon particles.”
Coal ash displaces Portland cement in the concrete mixture, and the ash makes for a more durable product. Further, the creation of Portland cement is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. For those reasons, coal ash is now required to be used for many construction and transportation projects.
“In order to make concrete to meet specifications,” Batten says, “we have to have it.”
Following publication, we received additional information from Jennifer McGinnis, Attorney and Principal Legislative Analyst for the N.C. General Assembly, as requested by Rep. Pricey Harrison. In essence, McGinnis said that due to confidentiality agreements she couldn’t speak specifically to how the coal-ash cleanup deadlines were established in North Carolina law, but that based on public feedback that “I think there was a desire to close the ponds, and eliminate associated risks, as quickly as possible.” She also referenced the U.S. Environmental Protection’s coal-ash regulation, which became effective in Oct. 2015.
Henry Batten wishes to correct this quote: Batten reports that his company “consumes about 2.1 to 2.5 million tons of ash annually,” writing via email: “The quote was referring to cubic yards of concrete at 2.5 million cyds. We consume about 150,000 to 200,000 tons of ash annually.”
While the North Carolina Ethics Commission earlier this year dismissed a complaint against Gov. Pat McCrory’s office related to a meeting with Duke Energy officials and other issues, advocates say key questions remain unanswered.
In particular, the process did not provide any more insight into a 2015 dinner between state officials and Duke Energy’s CEO and key staff. Advocates have raised questions about the timing of the meeting, which took place just days before the state issued key permits for two coal ash sites.
“They just looked at it on its face and didn’t dig – they didn’t have time to,” says Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, who authored the complaint.
In its decision, obtained by Southeast Energy News last month, the commission said there are not “facts sufficient” to determine a violation. Records requests by BREDL and media organizations have failed to turn up an agenda or notes from the meeting.
A government scholar says the commission acted within the scope of its duties.
“Based on my review of the complaint, Commission determination and state law, it appears to me that the Commission acted within the scope of its statutorily imposed parameters, a scope that it does not have the legal authority to exceed,” says Norma R. Houston, a lecturer for UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government.
When asked to comment on the meeting, Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan responded via email, “As a highly regulated company, we seek to have constructive discussions with regulators and elected officials where we respond to their questions and update them on a variety of issues that are of importance to the state and its citizens.”
Gubernatorial debate revives controversy
At the time the meeting was disclosed by WRAL, a Raleigh TV station that discovered it through a review of public records, a McCrory spokesman said the discussion “included topics about the economy, the environment, energy and job creation.” State officials at the time declined to discuss further details.
During a debate between McCrory and political rival Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general, on Oct. 18, the governor broke his silence about the meeting. McCrory, a longtime former employee of Duke Energy, stated that during the dinner meeting he and his guests discussed coal ash legislation that he later vetoed.
However, his statement does not match the timeline of events.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014, which became law without McCrory’s signature in August of that year. The dinner meeting at the governor’s mansion took place 10 months later, and the vetoed bill in question wasn’t introduced in the General Assembly until a year after that.
McCrory did, in fact, veto a coal ash bill in July 2016, objecting to the creation of a Coal Ash Management Commission whose purpose would have been to watchdog the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality during the statewide coal-ash cleanup process.
While the Cooper campaign did not respond to requests for comment, it did release a statement immediately following the debate pointing out the governor’s gaffe.
Southeast Energy News contacted the governor’s office for comment and was referred to his campaign chair, Ricky Diaz, who did not respond to multiple requests.
Coal-ash landfill permits issued following dinner meeting
The four-page ethics complaint, received by the Commission on June 26, 2016, cites potential violations of the State Government Ethics Act, including the June 1, 2015, dinner between McCrory, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart, “and various legal counsel” at the governor’s mansion. The complaint also accuses the McCrory administration of using NCDEQ media resources for political purposes and cites a lack of transparency by state government regarding public records requests and the controversial dinner meeting.
In the complaint, Vick writes, “Four days after the meeting between the governor, Duke Energy and the DEQ secretary, permits were issued for two controversial coal ash landfills in Lee and Chatham counties.”
A press release announcing the issuance of those permits was published via NCDEQ’s website on June 5, 2015.
At that time, Vick says, “There had already been a violation at the Brickhaven location (in Chatham county); the violation was for doing something they didn’t have a permit for.”
Vick suspects the new permits were an outcome of the dinner meeting.
“I think that Gov. McCrory has a unique relationship with Duke Energy,” she said.
Requests for comment sent to NCDEQ Communication Director Mike Rusher went unanswered.
A March 2016 profile on NCDEQ Secretary van der Vaart in the Triangle Business Journal included this comment from him, “‘If you look at my publicly available calendar, you’ll find I have meetings with Duke all the time,’ he says, adding that he meets with all kinds of groups, from the state’s largest utility to the Sierra Club. ‘There’s nothing secret about that meeting. That’s a great example of a non-issue.’”
A matter of transparency
In its Notice of Dismissal, dated July 26, 2016, the Ethics Commission writes, “After reviewing the complaint and other information provided by Complainant, the Panel determined that the complaint did not allege facts sufficient to constitute a violation within the Commission’s jurisdiction.”
Vick, however, notes that the state agencies that may be in possession of those facts have been unwilling to make them public.
“Our compilation was pretty specific,” she says, referring to the portion of her complaint alleging NCDEQ’s failure to disclose information in response to public records requests.
In the complaint, Vick explains that she submitted a public records request to NCDEQ “asking for information related to DEQ staff meeting with representatives from Duke Energy. The information on the June 1 meeting was withheld. Also troublesome, the meeting was not disclosed during the discovery process related to challenges to two environmental permits regarding coal ash disposal.”
Information about the meeting was requested as part of the discovery process for a BREDL lawsuit regarding the mining permits and also as a separate public records request.
“We know that van der Vaart was there (at the dinner meeting), and he was one of the people that we had specifically asked for a list of any contacts he had with anyone from Duke Energy,” said Vick; “We found out about the dinner when the media found out.”
On July 21, 2015, at the request of BREDL, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office issued a memo to NCDEQ stating, in part, “As you should already be aware, your Departments are under a continuing obligation to preserve all records related to coal ash.” The memo continues: “This litigation gives rise to a legal duty to preserve records that may be potentially relevant to the case, and to prevent destruction of such records. The failure to adequately perform this duty, even when inadvertent or unintentional, can have serious consequences, including sanctions from the court.”
At the time it broke the news of the meeting, state officials told WRAL that no records of what was discussed at the dinner existed: “In response to a public records request, the Department of Environmental Quality said Secretary Donald van der Vaart neither received an agenda for the meeting nor recorded the discussion in any way. A similar request to the Governor’s Office yielded only emails and calendar entries arranging the meal and the meeting, but officials say there were no emails or other documents detailing what topics were discussed or why exactly the meeting was called.”
Ethics Commission findings confidential
“By statute, neither the commission nor its staff may comment on or provide any documents related to any complaint or possible complaint against someone covered by the Ethics Act,” wrote Pamela B. Cashwell, Assistant Director of the North Carolina State Ethics Commission. “Complaints and responses filed with the Commission and reports, other investigative documents and records of the Commission connected to an inquiry, are confidential and not matters of public record.”
The Commission’s dismissal letter was provided to Southeast Energy News on Sept. 22 by Vick with the approval of BREDL’s attorney.
The Notice of Dismissal states that McCrory “was notified of the allegations on June 27” and that the commission forwarded the complaint to McCrory on July 8 “and initiated a preliminary inquiry.” On July 20, “the Panel reviewed the information resulting from the preliminary inquiry.” And on July 26, the Notice of Dismissal was signed by Perry Y. Newson, Executive Director for the Panel.
The commission’s dismissal of her ethics complaint has not deterred Vick.
“If we don’t continue to push – the communities being impacted by coal ash and other things – to bring this information into the sunshine, they are going to keep doing their dirty work in the dark. They are certainly not trying to be transparent,” Vick says.
Coal ash waste is an issue of particular concern in the Southeast, which is where the majority of coal ash impoundments are located and has been the site of high-profile spills in recent years.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) created its informational website SoutheastCoalAsh.org in late 2012 as a resource to those wishing to learn more about the topic. Since then, the coal-ash issue’s landscape has changed many times over thanks to the 2014 Dan River spill, but especially because both the federal and state regulatory landscapes have changed. The site has been updated to include more prominent mapping of coal ash sites across the Southeast along with tracking industry’s responses to deadlines established by EPA’s coal ash rule and state rules.
To learn more about SoutheastCoalAsh.org’s relaunch, and the goals SACE has for that platform, Southeast Energy News spoke with Amelia Shenstone, Campaigns Director, and Adam Reaves, High-risk Energy Coordinator.
Southeast Energy News: What prompted SACE to update SoutheastCoalAsh.org?
Reaves: We’re constantly trying to make this site more useful for the public. We’ve made everything mobile- and tablet-friendly so people can browse and find information from any type of media device, and we’ve made the mapping feature more prominent, too.
There’s a lot of information to trudge through, so we work hard to keep the site up to date whether it’s for people who are just learning about coal ash and want to know if they live or work close to a waste site, or those in industry, government or the media who are seeking public documents or more in-depth information.
A huge amount of information is being disclosed by utilities as they respond to the EPA’s coal ash rule. We’re finding the information we feel is most important for the public and putting it on the website in a way that’s easy for people to find and understand. For example, the EPA’s rule had a deadline this past January for industry to report on the amount of ash and wastewater on their properties. The next big milestone is Nov. 17 when the company’s closure plans are due. SoutheastCoalAsh.org will link to all of that information. Our hope is the site will make it easy for interested parties to quickly find the information they’re looking for on any given coal plant in the Southeast.
SoutheastCoalAsh.org is a good place for people to find out what their states are doing, or not doing, to protect them, to learn about the environmental and health hazards and to find out – where is this stuff? Is it close to me and my family? To where I work? We look at it as a powerful resource to raise public awareness and to educate folks.
Why put so much effort into watchdogging the coal ash issue when SACE is also focused on solar and wind energy issues?
Shenstone: The purpose of SoutheastCoalAsh.org is to give concerned people a tool to protect themselves and their communities from the dangers of coal ash, which is a major liability for utilities; it presents the possibility of catastrophe as well as ongoing pollution. And as our regulations catch up to protect public health, it’s going to be an economic liability as well. The website is a tool to help people to defend themselves.
Coal ash is one of the reasons why we would consider coal a high-risk energy choice. SACE overall works to promote energy sources that address global climate change and to protect communities. That means we need more energy sources like solar and wind and to stay away from risky sources like coal and nuclear. Addressing the inherent risk of coal by addressing coal ash is an important part of moving to a cleaner energy economy in the Southeast.
For people new to the coal ash issue, how can your website help them around the learning curve?
Reaves: The ultimate purpose of the website is to be a one-stop resource for coal ash so people can see where coal ash is related to them and their communities.
With the relaunch, our mapping tool is the first thing visitors should see on our website. The reasons people might be interested in where the ash is located include locating neighborhoods that are nearby and waterways where people might be recreating – boating, swimming, fishing, and people might wonder if they’re getting drinking water a source downstream from the coal ash sites. The site’s visitors can click on the icons on our map and go directly to information about the coal ash impoundments nearest them. The site is set up so that you get an overview first off, and that leads you to more and more information.
How is SACE working with other organizations – corporate, environmental advocacy, government – when it comes to coal ash?
Shenstone: There’s a broad collection of groups that are concerned about coal ash in the Southeast. We work closely with those who are listed as partners on SoutheastCoalAsh.org, and we are frequently in conversation with those groups who are on the ground at those sites. A good example would be the Waterkeepers, who are watching the floodwaters in North Carolina that followed Hurricane Matthew.
We’re also pushing several states to do better when it comes to regulating and protecting us from coal ash. And we are working with the companies when we can, and definitely pay attention as they release their closure plans. The way we interact with utilities is varied across the region; we do our best to make our case to the utilities to let them know what we would want them to do and why before we would pursue other avenues. We also try to raise pressure at state and federal level to do more when it comes to cleaning up coal ash.
How can people learn more about SoutheastCoalAsh.org?
Reaves: We’re hosting a free webinar on Oct. 19; those interested can register online.
How to dispose of coal ash? It’s a particularly pressing question for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), whose 2008 dam breach at their Kingston, Tennessee plant spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers, and led to congressional hearings and new 2015 regulations on depositing ash.
Companies are now turning to multiple solutions for both current and retired coal plants: cap-in-place, closure-by-removal, and hybrid closure methods that blend re-use with stabilization strategies, such as adding concrete, lime, or water-repellant hydrosilanes.
TVA is taking a new approach by experimenting with “intelligent compaction technology,” which is primarily used to create roads and airfields. By 2024 TVA will close all but six of its coal plants and will use the technology at all of them, at a cost of around $1 million for each location.
Advocates warn, however, that the area’s geology still poses risks.
Intelligent compaction technology was crafted for the utility with the help of environmental engineer David J. White, who recently left Iowa State University to found his own company, Ingios Geotechnics. Intelligent compaction presses dry ash into dense layers.
“The developments in computer, the internet, wireless data transfer and the ability to handle huge amounts of data in computer software programs has allowed this new technology,” said White.
TVA’s compacting machines are equipped with rollers fitted with a vibrating drum and sensors that send real-time data to a computer 100 miles away. The data includes the number of roller passes needed to compact the ash, the chemical makeup of that particular ash—which will differ depending on the source of the coal—as well as the exact GPS location where it is being laid down.
The sensors also relay how much moisture the ash contains, which can be corrected in real time—adding more water or more ash so that the shear strength (how hard you have to try to cut a material without it breaking) is ideal. A mobile lab is also on-site to measure different properties of the coal ash.
Ultimately, the ash is pressed into a rock-hard density that proponents say is unlikely to ever leach. The layers will eventually form a pyramid, says TVA environmental engineer Nicholas McClung, with a cap on top. That will allow rainwater to drain easily into a basin.
TVA program manager Nicole Walker describes the three-dimensional computerized compaction map as a kind of “MRI of each layer. It allows us to have 100 percent visibility into each layer in the stack from day one until we close the stack 30 or more years from now.”
Standard compaction methods might test several inches on a whole acre, while intelligent compaction tests measure every single inch. The advantage, says Miller, is that “if an engineering problem arises years later, we can slice down the model to see where the original discrepancy occurred. What are the properties of the ash right here at this one spot where perhaps we’re seeing erosion or a sinkhole or a rise in groundwater in the stack?”
And those problems may indeed arise, according to Amanda Garcia, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
That’s because at least two of the TVA’s ash sites—the Kingston plant, and Gallatin, both in Tennessee—are built on vulnerable karst bedrock, which is characterized by dissolved fractures, sinkholes, caves and cavities. Chemicals from coal ash can be carried by water through karst into vulnerable rivers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations for karst terrain state that “engineered solutions are complex and costly, and the best protection is not to site CCR landfills and surface impoundments in karst areas.”
“Kingston has a history of 28 sinkholes and dropouts,” says Garcia. “A major sinkhole in 2010 caused the liner to break and dumped a large volume of gypsum ash into the groundwater and Clinch River.”
This happened so fast, according to the Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment, that it caused a vortex in the waste and resulted in significant contamination to the Clinch River before it was discovered. Says Garcia, “Our understanding is that steamrolling and radar will not prevent future formation of sinkholes at the site.”
Conservation groups, says Garcia, submitted comments about Kingston. They noted, for instance, that at one recently constructed landfill at Gallatin, which has had at least 100 known sinkholes, TVA “conducted a site specific hydrogeologic investigation that included substantial, high-tech investigative techniques that were not implemented or seemingly even considered by TVA for the Kingston facility.” Kingston is currently approved for 50 acres of landfill, says Garcia, with plans to expand another 41 acres over time.
The SELC is also litigating the issue of coal ash stored in leaking, unlined surface impoundments on top of karsts at Gallatin, and Garcia reports that “the district court recently issued an order allowing our claims related to discharges through sinkholes and fissures to go forward.”
Scott Fiedler, a spokesperson for the TVA, says the utility has “extensively supplemented” its earlier Kingston investigations. “We found that dewatering and capping ash impoundments would significantly reduce structural integrity and groundwater contamination risks.”
Gallatin’s analysis, in turn, was completed for a new landfill, with more surveying required. He adds that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) ruled that TVA had fully addressed issues with karst; and that in 2014 TVA received national recognition for engineering solutions on karst in 2014 from the American Council of Engineering Companies.
“TVA determined that the environmental and safety impacts of moving ash to another site significantly outweighed the impacts of closing impoundments in place,” Fiedler said.
A draft proposal from North Carolina officials to comply with a federal rule on coal ash represents the “bare minimum required,” according to at least one critic, for a state that considers itself a leader on the issue.
The proposal, from North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission, is in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 rule which governs the storage and handling of coal ash. The draft rule closely follows the EPA’s baseline, with the exception of where the state’s Coal Ash Management Act already provides for additional or more stringent requirements.
The public may have a chance to comment on the rule before the end of the year.
“The purpose of this draft proposed rule is to bring North Carolina’s comprehensive coal ash regulations in line with federal requirements,” said Mike Rusher, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. “The draft proposal is subject to, and expected to update during this public process. The rules as you know aren’t finalized and the coming votes determine when/if this proposal will go to public review,” he added.
The commission is expected to vote on the proposal during its November meeting session which is scheduled for Nov. 9 and 10 in Raleigh. (The Groundwater and Waste Management Committee’s portion is scheduled for Nov. 9.) It is anticipated the commission will also establish firm dates for a public comment period and a date for a public hearing during its November session should it vote to move forward on the rule.
According to the PowerPoint presentation, if the rule-making process continues as planned, the submission of the rule’s text, fiscal notes and presentation are expected by the commission on Oct. 11, and the rule is expected to be published in the North Carolina register and on the Department of Environmental Quality’s website by Dec. 15.
The date the rule is published in the register is the likely start of a two-month public comment period. The tentative schedule noted that the earliest date for a public hearing is Dec. 30.
Should the rule proceed according to the tentative schedule it is anticipated that it will become effective by May 1, 2017, at which time it will be submitted to the U.S. EPA for approval.
Therese Vick, of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), has closely followed coal ash regulation in North Carolina for years, particularly as it concerns municipal landfills. She says that she doesn’t believe the state’s proposed rule will touch on those landfills, which is also in line with the federal rule.
Coal ash waste at many sites is being excavated across North Carolina, as required by the Coal Ash Management Act, which became law sans Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature in 2014, and subsequent legislation that became law this summer with the governor’s signature. Much of that ash is being shipped to landfills in Chatham and Lee Counties.
BREDL, and its community offshoots, oppose the landfills. On June 9, 2016, Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump, EnvironmentaLEE and the BREDL filed an appeal in state superior court alleging manipulation of the permitting process for the two landfills. The court has yet to weigh in on the groups’ appeal.
“It is unclear whether schemes like the landfills in Chatham and Lee County will still be allowed, and if the siting requirements for [Municipal Solid Waste Landfills] will be required,” says Vick of the commission’s proposed rule. She also pointed out that “not a word about environmental justice” was included in the proposal.
Following a public hearing by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights in Walnut Cove, N.C., in April, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality issued a press releasestating that “it will go beyond state and federal requirements to ensure minority communities are not negatively impacted by Duke Energy coal ash landfills.”
“EPA’s rules were meant to be a foundation to build upon,” says Vick. “Even though North Carolina can have rules more stringent than EPA, this proposal is the bare minimum required.”
A long-awaited report presents a conundrum for coal ash recycling in North Carolina.
As Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, works to meet state requirements to safely dispose of coal ash, there is a ready market for concrete producers, who currently import much of their fly ash from overseas. However, the technology to make North Carolina’s ash suitable for recycling may be too expensive to implement on a short timeline.
Technical and research executives at some concrete companies have expressed a willingness to shoulder all of the processing costs, including building facilities from scratch, but not without a guaranteed, long-term, supply of ash.
The report was coordinated by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which teamed with the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research and Golder Associates, an environmental consulting firm. It was submitted to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission.
North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act lays out specific deadlines and options for closing Duke Energy’s ash basins. This year’s amendment to the act requires Duke to determine locations for two ash processing facilities by the end of this year and a third facility by next June. Together, Duke Energy is required to be able to process 900,000 tons of ash annually already stored in basins for the concrete industry once the facilities are built.
Last year, Duke Energy said it recycled 63 percent of the roughly 3 million tons of ash it produced – but did not dispose of – in 2015. How long it could take Duke to build the three processing facilities remains to be seen.
‘A significant investment’
Duke Energy spokeswoman Zenica Chatman said the company is using the report’s findings to help determine which plants that ash will come from and what new technologies can process more of it for concrete products.
Concrete makers say they could use a lot more ash now if it’s processed, or “beneficiated,” to meet quality control criteria. Many companies actually import ash from China and other countries because they say they can’t get enough of the right kind of ash in North Carolina. Ash that retains much of its carbon content that wasn’t burned due to emissions controls makes it less useful for concrete makers.
Most of the ash in North Carolina is stored in basins or ponds and concentrated at three of Duke Energy’s 17 active or retired coal-fired power plants. All totaled, ash is stored at 33 sites throughout the state. Currently there are a total of about 150 million tons of coal ash stored throughout North Carolina, according to Duke Energy.
Ash from the Marshall facility in Terell typifies the challenge and opportunity facing the utility and policymakers. While it generates a lot of ash and is in a “good” market location, the ash itself is only of marginal quality, thus requiring beneficiation, according to the report.
“Beneficiation represents a significant investment, with payback periods on the order of decades for some technologies,” the report said.
More recycling means less ash to be disposed of, further reducing risks to the environment and groundwater supplies, said Nick Torrey, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“The more people who learn about the absurdity of importing coal ash,” SELC’s Torrey said, “the sooner progress can be made. We should be making more out of the ash we already have.”
North Carolina vs. South Carolina
South Carolina has made significant progress on coal ash due in large part to legal action against utilities there and a more responsive government. That has contributed to the commercialization of two reprocessing facilities there developed by the SEFA Group.
“The one thing that stands out in South Carolina is the role of state government,” Torrey said. SELC sued Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric and Gas, two large utilities there, to facilitate action there.
Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in North Carolina, agreed. She said without incentives, Duke Energy will pursue the least-cost options. “Right now, there’s no financial incentive for them to do so.”
The EPRI report outlines new options for processing ash, but most of them are too costly without a guaranteed, long-term, supply of ash from Duke Energy. Industry experts and environmental advocates don’t expect Duke Energy to do anything more than what current law calls for.
“For concrete, fly ash is priced competitively with Portland cement and represents a potential revenue stream,” according to the market assessment portion, or Phase 1, of the report.
Phase 2 of the report explores commercial beneficiation technologies. Phase 3identifies technologies and the ash products they produce that currently have a limited market, or no market, in the U.S.
‘Concrete producers are willing to pay’
Companies such as the Concrete Supply Co. of Charlotte, where Duke Energy is headquartered, and Chandler Concrete Co. of Burlington, North Carolina, have spoken out or lobbied for a law requiring utilities to give up a lot more ash and more quickly than current law requires. That, they said, would help foster long-term supply contracts.
Jimmy Knowles, a vice president at the SEFA Group, said, “concrete producers are willing to pay for quality fly ash which, in effect, pays for the removal of ash from coal ash ponds.” This, he added, is preferable to “having ratepayers pay to clean up old ash ponds which are environmental liabilities.”
Complicating the decisions how and whether to treat coal ash is the longer it sits in ponds or landfills, the more it deteriorates, making it more costly to process it for construction projects. The utility industry’s transition away from coal also means less ash is being produced.
“As an industry, we need a high quality fly ash available year round,” said Eric Misenheimer, Technical Services Manager at Chandler Concrete Co.
SEFA’s Knowles explained that if “high-quality” ash were consistently and readily available in North Carolina, “concrete producers would use more of it and the coal ash stored in ponds would be eliminated more quickly.”
If fly ash “just barely meets the minimum requirements of ‘specification-grade fly ash,’ it will not translate into the intended outcome for North Carolina,” Knowles said.
Knowles explained that many of the ash treatment processes cited in the report have been tried before but without commercial success. “However, the opportunity/technology to reclaim coal ash from ponds and use it as SCM (supplementary cementitious material) in concrete is very realistic,” he said. “We are doing it every day in South Carolina.”
Chatman said the scope and scale of ash for Duke Energy to manage in North Carolina very different than South Carolina’s. “We also have aggressive state deadlines we must meet for closing ash basins that do not apply in South Carolina.” Some of those deadlines fall before new processing facilities could likely be built.
The EPRI report states that “while some regulatory uncertainty remains, especially at the state and local levels, the regulatory environment should provide a growing forward market in environment that encourages innovation and development of new use technologies.” It goes on to spotlight other options: “Applicable technologies for the recovery and processing of wet ash can be readily found in the mineral processing industries.”
Henry Batten, President of Concrete Supply Co., said he wishes Duke Energy was more proactive about coal ash solutions. “As much as I want to browbeat them,” he said he understands that won’t happen unless the utility is required to act.
“Duke could lead the market in supplying reclaimed ash if they wanted to,” Batten said.
As North Carolina’s policies for coal ash cleanup continue to evolve, the discussion has centered largely around two options – total excavation of ash ponds, or “cap-in-place,” essentially draining and covering the ash where it sits.
And as Duke Energy pushes for the latter, less expensive option, advocates and experts say other techniques may pose fewer risks to the public.
In May, when the state Department of Environmental Quality called for all coal ash sites to be excavated in North Carolina, Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, called it “the most extreme” option. A new law, passed in July, allows for the ash to stay put if the company establishes permanent drinking water solutions for affected residents by 2018 and repairs the earthen dams holding the impoundments in place.
In North Carolina, Duke Energy projects that in 2016 alone it will excavate 2.25 million tons of coal ash in North and South Carolina. Fleet-wide, the company stores a total of 180 million tons of coal ash in wet impoundments, according to spokesperson Paige Sheehan.
Problems with cap-in-place
While state officials insist cap-in-place is safe, environmental advocates argue it doesn’t prevent groundwater contamination or eliminate the risk of dam failures.
“There are a number of problems with the sites in North Carolina,” says Sam Perkins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “First and foremost, they are unlined, and that is a major problem with capping them in place. In some cases, a vast majority of the ash lies below the groundwater table – that’s in the engineering reports. There is significant concern about continued leaching because of lateral groundwater movement,” he says.
“The dams sometimes continue into the lake,” he says, “These are waterways that serve as drinking water reservoirs that have flooding issues that we’re seeing becoming worse due to increased stormwater runoff. That is going to be a structural problem regardless of (excavation or capping in place) because they’re saturated with water.”
Christopher Hardin, an engineer and consultant who works for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says hybrid closure methods are the way to go, combining excavation, capping and stabilization methods while reusing the ash when possible, and that each site’s closure plans should be customized.
He’s a proponent of a process called “stabilization in place,” or solidifying coal ash in impoundments with concrete or lime, which, he says, is a closure procedure already in use at other waste sites; he’s looking for a test site to prove the method for coal ash impoundments.
Hardin harbors some concerns about excavating ash too close to dams and “potentially failing them.” Stabilization-in-place could be used to solidify ash near the earthen dams, he says, making it safer to excavate the interior of the impoundments. He also says that instead of dewatering the impoundments – a practice that recently spiked arsenic levels in Charlotte’s drinking water reservoir, the water could be mixed in with a stabilizer and ash.
According to Robert Bachus of Geosyntec Consultants, it’s the water on top of the impoundments that can lead to “flows” like the one that occurred during the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority spill that clogged two rivers and covered more than 300 acres in black sludge.
Hardin agrees that removing the water – whether through dewatering or as part of a stabilization method – reduces the risk of a dam failure. However, he says it’s important to conduct an analysis at each site and that he’d like “the legislature to stop dictating the remedies, listen to the citizens and develop (closure) plans on a site-by-site basis.”
“It could be used where you want to control infiltration – maybe that’s cap-in-place, maybe that’s a new landfill, maybe that’s beneficial reuse. Anytime you’ve got ash, and you want to prevent water from getting into it, this might be something you would want to consider.” He, too, is seeking a test site.
Another engineer seeking a test site is Tim Siler, a geoscientist and former environmental risk manager for Progress Energy, which merged with Duke Energy in 2012; he also consults for Duke Energy. Using his method, “the ash is hydraulically isolated from the groundwater by constructing a hydraulic barrier at the bottom of the impoundment using engineered in-situ solidification/stabilization application on the ash and/or underlying natural material.”
Siler says the process, which is already used at “a number of EPA Superfund sites,” enhances the stability of the dams while creating a barrier between the ash and groundwater. “This could be used at sites where it might not be feasible to excavate,” Siler says, adding, “there won’t be groundwater flowing through the cell and leaching and contaminating groundwater.” The process also preserves the ash for future beneficial reuse.
“It’s more expensive than cap-in-place,” Siler says, “It’s a fairly labor-intensive solution, but it certainly costs less than excavating.” He says he’s presented his method to Duke Energy, environmental advocates, and North Carolina regulators and legislators. “We’ve gotten a very positive response,” he says.
Can’t be based on cost
Duke Energy estimates that traditional cap-in-place is the least expensive closure method for its impoundments in North Carolina. However, the EPA, in its coal ash regulation that became effective in October 2015, states that closure plans can’t be “justified based on the costs or inconvenience.”
“In South Carolina,” says Perkins, “where they decided to move the ash, we have not seen rates rise, or companies go bankrupt, but we have seen the arsenic levels (in the groundwater) drop dramatically.”
Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Mike Rusher has stated that “Closure methods are to be determined in impoundment-specific closure plans. Only if Duke Energy meets the requirements of the law and meets the satisfaction of the department can an impoundment classification be eligible under state law for cap closure, or they may require excavation.”
“A dedicated team is hard at work to identify options that are proven, safe and cost effective,” says Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan. “Given that this is a dynamic process, we are not in a position to discuss any specific approach or vendor we might be considering right now. Once our plans are finalized and agreements in place we’ll be in a much better position to discuss the approaches we are taking.”
NOTE: On the same day this article was published, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released this video about the new coal ash bill and its approval of it:
As North Carolina officials tout the state’s leadership on coal ash, advocates note that South Carolina has been far more effective on the issue, and without the legislative drama taking place in Raleigh.
Ulla Reeves, who used to track coal ash issues for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told The State in 2014 that “South Carolina has shown leadership in cleaning up coal ash when other states have not done so.”
Meanwhile, the only coal ash-related legislation passed in South Carolinastrengthened landfill requirements for the waste in support of a ban in Pickens County that stopped a North Carolina company from hauling ash to its landfill. Gov. Nikki Haley signed that bill into law in March.
During the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent biannual short session, state legislators voted on two coal ash bills. The first bill garnered a veto and the threat of another lawsuit from Gov. McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee. The second bill was crafted with input from the governor’s office and Duke Energy, and is expected to be signed by McCrory sometime this month.
That bill provides for permanent drinking water solutions for affected residents – though it delays that solution by a year. It also allows coal ash waste to remain in unlined pits on the banks of the state’s rivers and lakes, which has citizens and environmental advocates crying foul.
Missing from the new bill: the Coal Ash Management Commission, which was supposed to oversee a statewide cleanup – a key component of the 2014 law.
The 2014 law also called for well-water testing at homes near the industrial waste sites. The testing results led to “do not drink” orders and hundreds of households subsisting on bottled water for a year and a half. In the meantime, Duke began ash cleanup operations at several of its coal plants as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice following its nine guilty pleas for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in May 2015.
Key support lacking
Two main supporters of the 2014 law and the recently vetoed bill, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), refused to vote for North Carolina’s new coal ash bill.
During the floor debate on the bill, McGrady said the new bill “gives me pause” because of changes to the way risk is assessed. Harrison said the bill “disregards the 8,000 public comments DEQ received” in March.
In May, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality classified eight of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites as high-risk and 25 as intermediate risk. None were listed as low-risk, the category that allows for the less expensive cap-in-placeoption, where ash is left in unlined pits.
The new legislation allows for risk classifications to be lowered to “low-risk” once residents are provided permanent water supplies and the company has repaired the earthen dams holding the waste in place. The downgrade allows Duke Energy to leave the waste where it is instead of removing it.
That caveat concerns nearby residents and advocates alike since “capping in place” won’t prevent future dam failures, and the science behind the company’s groundwater contamination data is in question. That is of particular concern since the basins are unlined, and the state already has years’ worth of data indicating that the groundwater near all of Duke Energy’s coal ash pits in the state is contaminated.
When the department released the classifications, as mandated by the Coal Ash Management Act, it also asked the legislature to revisit the classifications in 18 months citing “incomplete information” about the risks related to each site. The press release accompanying the determination quoted the department’s secretary, Donald van der Vaart, as saying that cleanup deadlines “are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed.”
The new bill, passed a mere month and a half after the department’s request, allows van der Vaart to extend deadlines for the company at his discretion.
‘Not a leader’
Despite these changes, it remains commonplace for press releases from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services to begin with a sentence or two about the McCrory’s administration’s work on coal ash. Even department leaders, like DEQ’s assistant secretary Tom Reeder,begin public comments with words of praise for the administration where coal ash is concerned.
Meanwhile, cleanup in South Carolina is running ahead of schedule.
“No. No, North Carolina is not a leader on coal ash,” said Xavier Boatright of Clean Water for North Carolina. “One of the main things it wants to do involves the cheaper options, like cap-in-place or the controversial act of mine reclamation. And until Duke Energy starts its beneficial reuse projects, South Carolina companies are supplying North Carolina concrete companies with ash. As is Asia. In North Carolina, where we have significantly more coal ash, our only coal-ash export is to landfills in communities in other states.”
This article was originally published by Southeast Energy News, and is republished here with permission. The article was written by Coal Ash Chronicles’ Rhiannon Fionn.
This article was originally published by Southeast Energy News, and is republished here with permission. The article was written by Coal Ash Chronicles’ Rhiannon Fionn.
The North Carolina General Assembly’s efforts to re-establish the state’s coal ash commission have many worried that another lawsuit from Gov. Pat McCrory could further limit oversight.
Specifically, such a case could lead to the dissolution of multiple citizen commissions whose purpose it is to oversee various governmental agencies within the state.
The Coal Ash Management Commission was originally created in the months following the 2014 Dan River spill as part of the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA). Gov. McCrory refused to sign the bill, which became law without his signature on June 20, 2014.
Gov. Pat McCrory
The governor, a former longtime Duke Energy employee, sued the legislature over the commission, objecting to the requirement that the commission be independent of the governor. In 2015, the state’s Supreme Court agreed, declaring the commission’s appointment process “unconstitutional.” Its decision does not prohibit the General Assembly from making appointments to executive branch commissions.
The lawsuit also included the state’s Mining and Oil and Gas commissions – both of which were reconstituted as part of SB71, the bill now awaiting the governor’s signature or veto.
Robin W. Smith, an attorney and former Assistant Secretary for Environment at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality), summarized the Supreme Court’s decision on the blog SmithEnvironment.com:
The court pointed to three factors that combined to create an unconstitutional legislative interference with the Governor’s executive powers and responsibilities:
1. Each commission has authority to take final executive action (i.e., the Coal Ash Management Commission has the final authority to prioritize coal ash ponds for closure and approve final closure plans);
2. The legislature appointed a majority of the members to each commission; and
3. The legislature limited the Governor’s ability to remove commission members by allowing removal only for cause (such as misconduct).
The implication of the decision is that a separation of powers violation has occurred when all three conditions exist.
The coal ash commission, as recreated in SB71, meets two of those three conditions.
Attorneys for the legislature and the two former governors who were party to Gov. McCrory’s previous lawsuit disagree with his attorney, Robert C. Stephens, that the commission’s new structure would violate the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Stephens’ letter to the General Assembly reads, in part:
The three commissions in this bill are the same commissions that were at issue in McCrory v. Berger. In that case, our Supreme Court ruled that the structure of all three prevented the Governor from performing his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. This was a violation of the cornerstone principle Of our state’s constitution — the separation of powers. The Court stated, “in light of the final executive authority that these three commissions possess, the Governor must have enough control over them to perform his constitutional duty.” In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the vitality of its unanimous decision in Wallace v. Bone, which- held that the General Assembly may not “retain some control” over commissions endowed with executive powers.
“I do not understand why the McCrory administration has taken the position that it has,” Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), the author of Senate Bill 71, the coal ash bill, said, adding, “except the governor told me he took the position that there should be no other entity that could have a decision-making role over coal ash.”
This article was originally published by Southeast Energy News, and is republished here with permission. The article was written by Coal Ash Chronicles’ Rhiannon Fionn.
With a new bill passed by wide margins, North Carolina lawmakers are again challenging their state’s governor on coal ash oversight.
In its biannual short session, the North Carolina General Assembly fast-tracked a new coal ash bill that reconstitutes the state’s defunct Coal Ash Management Commission and forces Duke Energy to pay for the installation of filtration systems or municipal water lines to more than 900 homes within a half-mile of the company’s coal ash impoundments.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson)
“The Coal Ash Management Commission is needed to review the recommendations of [the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality],”Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), the bill’s sponsor, said. “Also, it’s a matter of trust. When we put the commission in place last year, there was not a lot of trust in DEQ, and I would suggest that there’s still not a lot of trust.”
The bill passed both the House and the Senate on Tuesday with wide margins, despite a veto threat from Gov. Pat McCrory. Should the governor veto the bill, it’s expected to be quickly overridden.
The governor, a former longtime Duke Energy employee, sued the legislature over the commission, arguing that he wasn’t afforded an adequate amount of control over it. The state’s Supreme Court agreed, the commission’s work stalled and, before the General Assembly could address the issue, the governor disbanded the commission.
The new bill affords the governor five of seven appointees to the commission with legislative approval. This setup still does not please Gov. McCrory, who, before the bill was made public, was threatening to sue the legislature over the commission yet again.
The bill also mandates that Duke Energy submit plans to beneficially reuse at least 2.5 million tons of coal ash annually, half of which must come from “current inventory,” making North Carolina the first state to require that coal ash be beneficially reused.
“Many state transportation agencies require the use of coal fly ash to improve concrete quality, and most states encourage beneficial use overall through established regulatory programs,” says John Ward, a lobbyist with the American Coal Ash Association. “I’m not aware of any other statutes specifically requiring beneficial use. Of course, most states don’t have a Coal Ash Management Act.”
Though they are pleased about the drinking water provisions, citizens and advocacy groups alike say that the bill creates uncertainty when it comes to a recently promised statewide coal-ash cleanup since the commission is tasked with reviewing the DEQ’s classifications that mandated the cleanup.
The worry is that the commission could change the classifications, ostensibly allowing for some impoundments to be “capped in place” instead of being removed to landfills and away from waterways.
“Getting safe water has always been the goal,” says Amy Brown, a citizen activist who has managed with bottled water for more than a year due to purported coal ash contamination in her well. “But,” she added, “we need a cleanup and no more excuses or extensions.”
The bill specifies that Duke Energy must establish memorandums of agreement for “permanent replacement water supplies” to all who live within a half-mile “from the established compliance boundary of a coal combustion residuals impoundment” unless the property is separated by a river, and “as soon as practicable, but no later than October 1, 2017.”
Once the bill becomes law, Gov. McCrory will have 30 days to appoint a chair and four additional commissioners. Both the House and the Senate would each appoint one commissioner. Commissioners are to serve four-year terms.
It remains to be seen whether or not the governor will sue the legislature again, or whether or not he will appoint his five allotted commissioners.
If the commission fails to launch, for whatever reason, the bill’s contingency plan is for the state’s Environmental Management Commission to assume the Commission’s duties and responsibilities. Though, that commission could also be in danger of disbandment if the governor takes his case back to the state’s Supreme Court.
Once the bill becomes law, Duke Energy will have until Aug. 1 to submit information “on permanent replacement water supplies” and until June 1, 2017, to produce memorandums of agreement, or documentation of other agreements, to either run municipal water to affected citizens’ homes or to install whole-house filtration systems on them. The state has until Dec. 31 to approve the plans and necessary permits.
The law will re-open the public comment period on DEQ’s proposed classification through Aug. 1, a move Rep. McGrady said would allow the new commission time to get up to speed.
Following the comment period, the commission will have up to eight months to approve or change DEQ’s classifications.
Review NCDEQ’s priority rankings here; the classifications affect how quickly the coal waste sites will be cleaned up or if they’ll be “capped in place,” an act that would leave much of the industrial waste in unlined pits that are known to contaminate groundwater.
There are two ways to submit your public comments to NCDEQ on the coal-ash priority rakings: You can submit written comments, or you can attend a public hearing and speak your peace there. All of the public hearings begin at 6 p.m. The dates and the coal plant associated with each hearing, and the county it will be held in, are listed below:
March 1: Asheville (Buncombe County), Dan River (Rockingham County), Riverbend* (Gaston County), and Sutton (New Hanover County).
March 10: Cape Fear (Chatham County), H.F. Lee (Wayne County), Weatherspoon (Robeson County).
March 14: Rogers (formerly Cliffside) — there are two meetings in two different locations being held that night, one in Cleveland County and the other in Rutherford County.
March 16: Mayo and Roxboro, both in Person County.
March 22: Allen (Gaston County) and Buck (Rowan County).
March 24: Belews Creek (Stokes County).
March 29: Marshall (Catawba County).
*The Riverbend coal plant is the one closest to Charlotte.
Should you wish to submit your comments via email, those email addresses are listed at the bottom of this post.
IMPORTANT: You are urged to double-check with NCDEQ’s website on the location of each hearing in the event the location changes. Find the address for each public hearing here, where you’ll also find very specific instructions for submitting written comments.
Now, on to the free screenings of “Coal Ash Stories”! You’ll see four documentary shorts about coal ash waste — including 10 minutes from “Coal Ash Chronicles” — and have a chance to speak to experts on the topic. There will also be an activity for children, so bring the kids! Here is a list of dates, times, and locations:
February 24 at 6:30 p.m.: Cleveland County Memorial Library, 104 Howie Dr. Shelby, N.C., 28150. Facebook event page.
February 25 at 6 p.m.: St. Mark Church of Christ, 700 W Ash St. Goldsboro, N.C., 27530.
March 1 at 7 p.m.: Catawba College Center for the Environment, 2300 W Innes St. Salisbury, N.C., 28144. Facebook event page.
March 2 at 7 p.m.: Hattie’s Tap and Tavern, 2918 The Plaza. Charlotte, N.C., 28205. Facebook event page.
March 3 at 7 p.m.: Temple Emanuel, 201 Oakwood Dr. Winston-Salem, N.C., 27103. Facebook event page.
March 15 at 6 p.m.: Walnut Cove Public Library, 106 5th St. Walnut Cove, N.C., 27052.UPDATE: Because Duke Energy is holding an invitation-only event for residents at its Belews coal plant at the same date and time as our screening, we moved the screening to March 17 at 6 p.m.: Rising Star (Fellowship Hall) 915 Windmill St, Walnut Cove, NC 27052. The Facebook event page has been updated to reflect this change.
As of 9:15 a.m. Feb. 24, 2015, I noticed that the links to NCDEQ’s website in this post were no longer working and, instead, redirecting to the departments’ main page, now DEQ.NC.GOV. This is critical because ALL of the email addresses for the public comments include ‘ncdenr’ in the address, so now I question whether or not those addresses will work. I have sent this email to the department’s PR contact:
I’m looking for information on the coal ash public meetings on your website this morning and, first of all, the links to the meeting information – links that were all working yesterday, including to the public hearings’ schedule – are this morning redirecting to the department’s main page. Searches on your website for things like “coal ash public meeting” or “coal ash priority ranking” show zero results.
UPDATE 2: As of 10:00 a.m. DEQ had updated the coal ash public meeting list, but links to its draft report for priority rankings were still not working. Read the emails back and forth (PDF); includes answers to other questions about the public comment period, information about the agency’s rebranding, etc.
UPDATE 3: DEQ’s webpage about its coal ash draft classifications is now back online, as is its older website. I’ve updated the PDF linked in UPDATE 2 with continued email back and forth with the department.
UPDATE 4: DEQ swears all of these email addresses will be active throughout the comment period, which ends April 18. They cannot, however, give me a time estimate for when the department’s email addresses will change from ‘ncdenr.gov’ to ‘deq.nc.gov’. Below is a list of email addresses for each of the coal plants.
On Fri., Feb. 5, 2016, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is hosting a briefing as it examines the nexus of coal ash waste and environmental justice. Rhiannon Fionn, the producer of “Coal Ash Chronicles,” was invited to testify as an independent journalist, filmmaker, and author who has covered coal ash issues since 2009. Her written and oral testimony is linked below.
After reading the title of this post, you probably have the same questions that I have. What is Coal Ash and why should I care? On Thursday, January 14th, during my show Voices From The Community, I will be joined by Rhiannon “Coal Ash Queen” Fionn. Given her extensive knowledge of this issue, I’ve asked her to take us through a Coal Ash 101 session of sorts to answer these and other questions that are on my mind.
Rhiannon Fionn has been researching and writing about coal ash waste since the summer of 2009 when the EPA released its list of high-hazard coal ash pits. At the time, she was a freelance reporter for The Mountain Island Monitor and a particular coal ash story landed in her lap. Fresh out of college – UNC Charlotte – where she majored in Communication Studies/ Mass Media and minored in Journalism, the story and others like it motivated her to sharpen her skills as an environmental, investigative and/or civic journalist, if you were to categorize her work. Rhiannon says her work “is really about doing what’s right with the skills and knowledge that I have…” Now, Rhiannon spends time traveling the country documenting stories from all sides of the coal ash issue and shares them here on Coal Ash Chronicles.
Join me for this Coal Ash 101 session on Thursday.
Stay tuned in via social media and by following the #coalash hashtag. Use that hashtag when you post coal ash news to bring your community’s coal ash challenges and successes to our attention, then we will retweet or share that news with our social media followers.
If you have photos you’d like to share, be sure to join our Flickr group. And if you’d like to be included in our YouTube playlists, please send us a link to your video. We will gladly share your images and video via other social media sites, too.
Whether you have social media accounts or not, you can follow the links below to access coal ash news. And, if you’re a fan of Reddit, you can follow along here.
Show your support for Coal Ash Chronicles’ efforts:
EPA Coal Ash Regulations Take Effect Oct. 19, But Battle Continues
By Rhiannon Fionn Until the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash disaster shoved homes from their foundations in the middle of the night in Dec. 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bending to pressure from industry, allowed coal plants to self monitor coal ash waste. But once the glare of the national spotlight called that conflict into… Continue reading →
Working Films has a tour of Missouri coming up for its “Coal Ash Stories” program. I’ll be there, will you?
Labadie Environmental Organization, The Missouri Sierra Club, Working Films, and [any other city specific host] will host a free open community discussion and film screening on the continuing impact of coal ash around the country, and right here in Missouri. You’re invited to this event featuring four short films that expose the public health concerns, related policy, and community responses to this environmental injustice. Come learn about the issues, talk with issue experts and others in your community, and find out how you can get involved.
Columbia Thursday, March 12, 7:30pm: Strickland Hall, Room 113 University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri 65211 Hosted by: Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, Osage Group/Missouri Sierra Club, Mizzou Energy Action Coalition, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, and Missourians for Safe Energy.
Springfield Sunday March 15, 7pm: Moxie Cinema 305 S Campbell, Suite 101, Springfield, Missouri 65806 Hosted by Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, White River Group/Missouri Sierra Club.
Kansas City Monday, March 16, 7pm: Westport CoffeeHouse 4010, Pennsylvania Ave. Kansas City, MO 64111 Hosted by Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, Thomas Hart Benton Group/Missouri Sierra Club, and The Little Blue River Watershed Coalition.
Jefferson City Tuesday, March 17, 7pm: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City 1021 Northeast Drive, Jefferson City, MO 65109 Hosted by Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, Osage Group/Missouri Sierra Club, Show Me Solar, and The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City.
Union Wednesday, March 18, 7pm: East Central College, Health and Science Building, Room 100 1964 Prairie Dell Road, Union, MO 63084 Hosted by Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, Eastern Missouri Group/Missouri Sierra Club, and the East Central College Green Committee.
St. Louis – Kirkwood Thursday, March 19, 7pm: Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Film Night 335 South Kirkwood Rd, St. Louis, MO 63122 Hosted by Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), Working Films, Eastern Missouri Group/Missouri Sierra Club, Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
North Carolina is at the forefront of coal ash news, but there are many other states battling the devastating side effects of coal ash pollution.
USA Today news reported on Tue., June 3 that the Obama administration, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, issued a bill for power plants to reduce harmful carbon emission by 2030. The proposed plan will reportedly “reduce pollutants that contribute to the soot and smog that make people sick by over 25 percent.” This relates to coal ash because the pollution has to go somewhere; if it’s not going out of the stacks, it’s going to end up as coal ash waste.
“This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs.” McCarthy said the proposal to cut power plant emissions will spur innovation and create jobs.” Read more here.
June 25, Raw Story reported a bill passed unanimously by the North Carolina Senate could close 33 coal ash ponds there within 15 years. This is a great step forward in addressing coal ash problems, but these ponds need to be more than closed. They need to be cleaned and moved away from important life sustaining water ways. Just wait for the August update on this one … sheesh! The summary: politics as usual.
“The clean-up plan uses a tiered approach to dictate when ponds at 14 sites statewide must be closed. At the most dangerous sites, including four named in the bill, coal ash would have to be moved to lined landfills or reused as building material by 2019.” Read more here.
The Big Story reported on Jun. 19 that Duke Energy knew for years that a part of their pipe responsible for the massive Dan River spill was made of faulty equipment, and that the company failed to fix the situation. In a 1986, a report was filed stating the pipe had a section made out of metal subject to corrosion; the report suggested maintenance checkups every six months. After the Feb. 2, 2014, coal-ash spill into the Dan River, Duke Energy representatives claimed they were unaware the pipe wasn’t made of corrosion-resistant concrete.
“Duke hired Law Engineering Testing Co. to perform the required inspections at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden. In its 1986 report, the Charlotte firm noted that part of the pipe was made of metal. ‘Part of this culvert is constructed of corrugated metal pipe which would be expected to have less longevity of satisfactory service than the reinforced concrete pipes,’ the report states.” Read more here.
Citizens in Florida, home to 78 ash impoundments, are stepping up their resistance against harmful waste streams in the Apalachicola River. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Apalachicola Riverkeeper teamed up to investigate the impoundments at Gulf Power’s Scholz Generating Station. The river supports a vast seafood business and the recreational needs of many communities, so when the environmental watchdogs discovered the power plant was seeping harmful toxins in their water they took the matter court.
“… last week we filed a federal federal lawsuit to stop Gulf’s pollution and protect the Apalachicola. The list of metals seeping out of impoundments at Scholz read like a who’s who of the periodic table, including carcinogens like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, beryllium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, selenium, and the neurotoxin mercury.” Read more here.
In North Carolina, as reported by News & Record, Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a reportedly unexpected coal-ash bill that’s mostly full of bullshit. The move even managed to tick off the governor’s own political party.
“Key GOP state legislators said they didn’t get any meaningful advance notice of the plan, which at least one thought went too easy on Duke Energy in some areas.” Click here to read full article.
In response to the bill, The News & Observer reported Duke Energy estimates it will cost at least $10 billion dollars and take 30 years to remove all of the coal ash at its 30-plus dump sites in North Carolina. Our response to this public display of complaining: So what; It’s time for the company to stop talking and start doing.
As a matter of fact, as reported by Creative Loafing, that $10 billion is nothing compared to the money citizens will save in healthcare costs every year should coal ash be regulated.
“The EPA estimates that nationally it will cost $20.3 billion a year to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and $8.1 billion to regulate it as non-hazardous. The agency also estimates this regulation will save $290 billion annually in health-care costs.” Click here to read more.
In West Virginia, a coal burning company named Alpha Natural Resources polluted waterways with selenium. Climate Progress explains excessive amounts selenium could cause hair or fingernail loss, numbness, or circulation problems. Alpha is still trying to cover its own ass in court, but hopefully no one will be fooled by their pleas of righteousness.
“[Alpha spokesman Steve Higginbottom] believes that the sludge pond “remains in the bounds of its permit.” Higginbottom said Alpha believes that state legislation passed in 2012 — called Senate Bill 615 — should protect them from the lawsuit.” Click here to read full article.
In Alaska, The News Miner covered a story about a group called Citizens for Clean Air who’s suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week in an effort to make the agency do its job.
“… Fairbanks residents and community groups in Alaska’s two biggest cities have filed a civil lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling on the federal agency to force the state to produce an implementation plan addressing particulate pollution in the Fairbanks North Star Borough” Click here to read full article.
At the time of this update, a protest was planned for May 1, 2014, at Duke Energy’s shareholder meeting in Charlotte, N.C. More on that in our next end-of-month update, but you can watch a news story about what was expected below and read Coal Ash Chronicles‘ founder Rhiannon Fionn’s Creative Loafing coverstory, “Charlotte is ground zero for coal ash,” by clicking this link.
With so much news coming out about Duke Energy’s Dan River coal ash spill, it’s difficult to keep up!
Since posting on this website is more time consuming than posting via social media sites, you’ll find most of our updates on Tumblr or Twitter. We are also updating Facebook, Google+ and YouTube — where we’ve cataloged hundreds of coal ash videos from citizens, industry, government and environmental groups. And, we have a Flickr account where anyone with coal ash photographs is welcome to share.
It’s important to understand that the way North Carolina regulates coal ash impoundments changed in 2010. Here are some snippets from past articles that might help explain how the laws changed.
Prior to the 2009 regulatory change:
Calling the coal ash basins “ponds” isn’t exactly accurate, though. Earthen dams or dikes, built using dam designs created by the U.S. Corp of Engineers, hold the coal ash infused water back. However, those structures are exempt from the N.C. Dam Safety Act of 1967.
Currently, the N.C. Utilities Commission (NCUC), under the umbrella of the state Department of Commerce, regulates the dams.
The state currently requires five-year inspections from a third party. While the other state entities, like the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) and the Division of Land Resources, are allowed to comment on the inspections, they have no authority to regulate the dams.
Bob Ellis, Duke Energy’s Vice President of Engineering, testified to the NCUC in February 2009. During his presentation, he described Duke’s practice of self-regulation, which includes annual inspections and more frequent monitoring of piezometers, instruments that measure water pressure.
Read the entire article here.
Once the regulations changed, the companies were required to inspect the dams every two years instead of every five and to monitor groundwater:
Merryman, the Riverkeeper, says he expects these wells to be installed within the year. However, he’s frustrated the state didn’t impose a deadline on the installation. Nor did they mention how often the company will be required to submit groundwater sample data.
Read more about the regulatory changes here.
These articles were written by Coal Ash Chronicles creator Rhiannon Fionn. She has been researching and writing about coal ash in North Carolina since May 2009, though less in the past couple years as she’s been traveling the country collecting coal ash stories for a documentary film.
Be aware that since all of these articles were written, several lawsuits have been filed between the Duke Energy, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) and several environmental groups. I highly recommend searching both The Charlotte Observer‘s and The Charlotte Business Journal‘s archives on the topic.
For even more perspective, check out our YouTube channel where we’ve organized hundreds of coal-ash related videos from citizens, industry, government, environmentalists, and media outlets.
Many articles are no longer online. Contact us if you want a copy of any of these or if you’d like to speak to Rhiannon about coal ash in North Carolina. We are working to get the articles online ASAP.
“From coal ash to concrete – scientists find new ways to use waste,” Carolina Weekly Newspapers, Nov. 2009
“Questions remain about groundwater at Riverbend,” Carolina Weekly Newspapers, Oct. 2009
“Riverbend turns 80 this month,” Carolina Weekly Newspapers, Oct. 2009
‘I don’t tag myself as an environmentalist, I tag myself as a water drinker’, Carolina Weekly Newspapers, Oct. 2009
While the Danville, Va., water utility is reporting that the water in its city is fine, you might want to know they’re making that statement based in part on water sample testing that was done by Duke Energy — the company is collecting the samples and processing them in their private lab at its McGuire nuclear plant in Huntersville, N.C.
Barry Dunkley, the division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities, tells Coal Ash Chronicles that the utility is also running tests with an independent laboratory. “We thought that was the right thing to do,” said Dunkley, but “we don’t have those test results back.”
He said the water utility must grant Duke Energy access to the water utility to sample water at the intake and that the energy company began sampling at 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, 26 hours after the coal ash spill began and moments before press releases from the company, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Danville Utility were released, all stating that there was no reason to be concerned about the city of Danville’s drinking water.
Meghan Musgrave, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said that she “will have to check” to see if the company is sharing testing results with the Danville Utility. When asked when the company began testing at the Danville water intake, she said, “If that’s what he said, I will assume that would be accurate, but I will have to check.”
Dunkley did confirm that Duke Energy is now sampling the water at the utility’s intake every four hours and that the water at the intake is gray, as is the water in the utility’s reservoirs, though he said the finished water — the water that goes to taps in the area – is clear.
During a media tour Tues., Feb. 4, at the Dan River plant, another Duke Energy spokeswoman, Erin Culbert, said that the utility is conducting water quality tests at several locations on the river every four hours. However, after the media tour, I met with two Duke Energy contractors who were taking samples from a bridge on the North Carolina-Virginia border — with a silver metal bucket and a rope — who said they were only taking samples in that location once a day. Dunkley was not aware of that.
When Musgrave was asked for a list of exactly what the utility is testing for and how long it takes to receive the test results (the contractors said they had some test results within three hours), she said, “I will have to check.”
So, look for an update on this post after Ms. Musgrave — who was answering the company’s media line today — checks with someone at Duke Energy who knows what’s going on with water testing on the Dan River, the site of what is now estimated to be the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. History, per Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance.
Duke Energy estimated on Monday that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water had already leaked from one of the Dan River plant’s two unlined, high-hazard coal ash basins. Yet another Duke Energy spokeswoman, Lisa Hoffman, clarified that the water and coal ash were mixed together in one stream. The spill is still ongoing as the company attempts to fix a 48-inch broken stormwater pipe that company and government officials believe is the cause of the spill.
The Dan River plant has been closed since 2012 and is in the process of being decommissioned by the company. There is now also a natural gas energy plant on that site.
“Even more disturbing than that astonishing and deeply disturbing news is that Duke Energy did not issue a press release and inform the public about this massive spill until 24 hours after it was discovered,” Lisnby continued. “If 500 rail cars of toxic waste, laden with heavy metals had derailed, there would have been immediate notification and quick news coverage in order to inform and protect the public. The delay in reporting this spill is inexcusable.”
Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said Tuesday during the media tour at Duke Energy’s plant, that the company had 24 hours to notify the state and 48 hours to notify the media, so it is in compliance with its requirement to notify the public of the spill.
Several environmental groups and Duke University are conducting their own water quality tests, though those results aren’t expected for a few days.
Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, says, “I know you’re eager for more information on what type of testing is being done — we all are.” She said the company is sharing information with the government but is mostly focused on fixing the leaking pipe, that they still don’t know what caused it to malfunction — an attempt to insert a camera into it has failed as the company didn’t realize that “there are some turns in the pipe; what we’ve now realized is that it dips down,” said Hoffman.
When asked how the company didn’t already know that, Hoffman said, “This plant was built in the 50s, that’s why we’re working to learn all of the facts now.”
Hoffman said she is not able to verify what substances the company is testing the Dan River for and that they’re leaving that up to the company’s environmental specialists. “Certainly they know what needs to be done and they’re doing it,” she said.
She also said that she is not sure how many contract workers are doing the sampling and, in fact, thought it was company employees who were conducing the sampling.
She also verified that the spill is still ongoing and that it fluctuates depending on the amount of water in the basin — note: it’s raining in Eden, N.C., as of this writing — and that they “don’t have a meaningful estimate” on how much coal ash slurry is leaving their property at this time.
Hoffman added, “The ash in the basin is a challenging material to deal with,” saying the company is trying to think of every possible way to stop the leak “so that we always have a plan b.”
Video posted from the Waterkeeper Alliance’s YouTube channel; taken by Donna Lisenby on Feb. 4, 2014, near the Dan River plant.
There have been several coal ash spills since the one that caught the world’s attention in Dec. 2008 in Kingston, Tenn.; the one that covered more than 300 acres in coal ash sludge days before Christmas.
In fact, there was another coal ash spill on Sun., Feb. 2, in Eden, N.C., at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River coal plant.
Here’s what we know about the spill as of 11:00 p.m., Mon., Feb. 3:
Duke Energy said Monday that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired power plant in Eden into the Dan River, and were still flowing.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) says it doesn’t “know of any possible impacts to water quality” due to coal-ash spill.
Media outlets were made aware of the spill via a press release issued by Duke Energy late Monday afternoon, more than 24-hours after the spill began. According to the Observer, the spill was first noticed by security detail at the energy company’s Dan River plant.
The source described the company and state’s attempts to resolve the problem: “They had tried to plug the line a few times but the head pressure was blowing it out, but [they were] working on putting more in” late this afternoon.
He added his fear is the planned solutions won’t work because it “could build so much back pressure and blow under the dam.”
In other words, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the Dan River coal ash dam that has breached is not out of the question.
The state source said the company’s plan is to cover their fix with cement, and that the unlined, high-hazard coal ash pond will likely continue to leak until that happens.
The classification of “high-hazard” means that should a catastrophic failure occur, loss of human life and massive property damage is likely.
“Five days after I sampled the river after the Kingston coal ash spill, I found arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals were 2 to 300 times higher than drinking water standards and the plume of coal ash stretched more than 20 miles,” said Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “The Dan River spill happened on Sunday and Duke Energy still has not reported the results of any water quality tests-this is unacceptable. Downstream communities need to know what pollutants Duke dumped into the Dan River,” Donna Lisnby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance
I’ve tried repeatedly to interview a government scientist who is an expert on selenium, one of the elements of concern in coal ash. Time and again, the government has shut me down or so mired me in red tape that I give up for a while … but I never give up completely.
I’m sharing with you all because you need to know that our government — this time by way of the U.S. Forest Service — is censoring government scientists on this national and very important issue, and because while they may not want to tell you what’s up with coal ash, that’s our mission. Why? Because you deserve to know what’s in your drinking water.
Here are some of the things Dr. Dennis Lemly told me about the government’s decision to grant interviews with him:
I have recently experienced some progress getting permission from the Forest Service to do interviews. The quote you cited was one I gave to an AP reporter recently, with FS permission. Any request has to be passed up my supervisory chain for review and consideration…..ultimately, the Ethics Branch in DC usually makes the final call. I think to some extent, permission is granted based on who’s asking……the AP reporter’s request was granted, but previous requests by NGO’s were denied, as were requests for expert reports or testimony in litigation cases that would seem to support a NGO.
I’ll be glad to start the permission-seeking process if you wish. All I need to get the process underway is a new email from you making a formal request and I’ll contact my supervisor.
So, I sent the email and got this in return:
I welcome the opportunity to discuss selenium and coal-related pollution issues with you. However, I am restricted from speaking to journalists without full prior permission granted through my supervisory chain. Depending on the scope and perceived importance of the interview and associated news outlet, that could include a need for official review and approval by our Washington Office as well. Also, there may be a need to have your questions posted and reviewed by Forest Service administration, and my answers examined and approved, prior to any interaction or discussion … in other words, a scripted interview.”
Do you understand what he’s saying there? He’s saying that the government is choosing which media outlets to work with via an “ethics branch” in Washington, D.C. … which is hysterically ironic. They’re also saying that if I’m granted an interview — and I’ve been asking for nearly a year — that I’ll have to use a script.
This was my response:
We would like to interview Dr. Lemly on camera.
At this time, we are not sure if we will use his interview in the film, though eventually we will be publishing full-length interviews online. We believe his insight is invaluable on the topic of selenium in relation to coal and coal waste.
However, as a professional journalist I disagree with the entire idea of a scripted interview as it is akin to censorship. As a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors I feel obliged to alert all three of those organization to the U.S. Forest Service’s process for screening journalists in a supposedly free and transparent government; in fact, I have already alerted the SEJ and will forward this message to an IRE board member shortly.
Therefore, while I very much wish to interview Dr. Lemly and firmly believe that the knowledge he has should be shared with the American public I will not adhere to the guideline for a scripted interview for ethical reasons. I’ll also add that it’s very concerning that the U.S. government is actively muzzling its scientists.
Please be in touch and let me know if it is the U.S. Forest Service’s intention to prevent, stall, censor, script, or in any other way interfere with my interviewing of a government employee. I hope none of that is true, in which case I would like to schedule the interview for Dr. Lemly’s earliest availability.
Do you understand what I’m saying there? Over my dead body will I script an interview with anyone, especially not for a government employee.
I’m contacting several journalism groups and attorneys today. I’ll not stand for government censorship. This isn’t China.
P.S. His quote in the AP was about dead fish. So, he can talk about fish. I want to talk about the woman in Alaska who lived across from a coal plant and had extremely high levels of selenium and other heavy metals in her system. We know what selenium does to fish — it causes deformities in the extremities; so, two heads, two tails. The woman in Alaska … well, shit … check out this very early, raw footage that I don’t usually share publicly. Look and see for yourself what happened to her hands and feet (this initial image is of her daughter):
Photo: Screening the documentary “Perry County” at the EPA’s coal ash hearing in Knoxville, Tenn., in October 2010. Perry County, Ala., is where the coal ash from the 2008 TVA disaster was landfilled.
One of the points we’re trying to prove with Coal Ash Chronicles is that coal ash waste isn’t only an issue for isolated pockets of America, nor is it an issue that only affects “other people.” No. It’s a huge issue in Washington, D.C., and it’s an issue that affects everyone.
Nearly half a million public comments were received by the EPA during hearings held around the country in 2010 on proposed coal ash regulations. And this year, in North Carolina, when the state attempted to settle a lawsuit against Duke Energy regarding coal ash contamination about 5,000 people spoke up against the settlement.
Around the country I find people who are activated by this issue who once believed our government had their backs. First they go to their local government, then the county, then the state, then the feds. What they find is a lot of foot-dragging and a lot of string-pulling, though those strings aren’t being pulled by citizens.
Galvanized citizens are working together to spread the word about the realities of coal ash contamination in our air and water, and they’ve also become important watchdogs in their own communities. In Giles County, Va., citizens even uncovered government corruption where coal ash is concerned.
The purpose of Coal Ash Chronicles is to collect stories from citizens who believe they’ve been affected by coal ash as well as from members of the beneficial reuse industry and academia who are working to find ways to reuse coal ash that may prevent the stuff from running off into waterways or dispersing into the air.
We take our responsibility as guardians of those stories very seriously, and — one way or another — we will share them with the public so you can see and hear them for yourselves and make up your own mind: Should coal ash be regulated?
Thank you for helping to make this film a reality.
Sorry for the delay between posts. It’s been a challenging week for the Coal Ash Chronicles’ team: In addition to my travels through some of America’s most rural areas — Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Western Nebraska, we have a team member who had to evacuate due to flooding in Colorado, another had to step back due to illness, and my favorite great uncle passed away.
On top of all of that, we had some technical difficulties Monday as we worked to launch our IndieGoGo campaign. But, we’ve made it through and we’re proud to say that — with your help — we’ve managed to raise $1,000 toward our $50,000 fundraising goal.
Here’s what you can do to help us reach our goals:
Share the link via social media, e-mail and by word-of-mouth.
Donate what you can.
A successful fundraising campaign will enable us to pay our contributors for their work, buy some necessary equipment and software that will enable us to continue working on the documentary film, buy production insurance, pay attorney’s fees, and more.
Every little bit really does help … and we definitely need your help.
Pausing for photos near Denali National Park in Alaska, 2012
Hey everyone! I’m making good on my promise to blog daily about my adventures on the road for Coal Ash Chronicles. This post is the third
in the series.
When I first announced to my friends and family that I intended to drive to Alaska, from Charlotte, N.C., and all around the lower 48 collecting coal ash stories — by myself, I should add, I was met with great concern. There was a lot of worrying about my safety, which is understandable. There’s also been a lot of concern about my taking on a non-paying, long-term project like this, since the reality is that we need money to live in our society.
Despite everything, the only real trouble I’ve encountered has come from my 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.
The first problem popped up on the 4th of July, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. The car’s throttle body failed, which means it wouldn’t accelerate. I ended up driving 10 miles per hour from a family gathering to a cousin’s house in 100-plus degree weather. But, I made it and was safe with family. So, all was well.
The second snafu occurred in rural Alaska. A crew was resurfacing a gravel road. As I drove by, a rock gashed one of my tires. Thirty minutes later, and after pulling every bit of camping gear out of the trunk, the tire was swapped with a small spare and the car and I limped the two hours back to Fairbanks.
Buttery pancakes at 4 a.m. somewhere in Oregon, Sept. 2012
About a month later, I was driving from Portland, Ore., to a great-aunt’s house in Idaho when something on the road punctured another tire. Naturally, that happened in an isolated area with no lighting or cellphone coverage. Eight hours later, and with the help of AAA, I made it to a Denny’s in a nearby town where I soothed myself with a giant stack of buttery pancakes.
Things have been going pretty smoothly since then, at least until yesterday. My car’s ‘check engine’ light came on. I stopped everything and took the car in. A tank full of high-octane gasoline and an oil change later, and I was off again … and so was the light. But, about 50 miles outside of Billings, Montana, the blasted light began blazing again. So, that saga continues …
There’s no time to wallow, though; America’s coal-ash issues aren’t pausing for anything, so neither can I.
After nearly two years on and off the road for this project, I’ve learned that even tiny things can destroy the best-laid plans. I’ve also gotten a lot better about rolling with the punches. Despite the many obstacles I’ve faced and continue to face, I’ve become more and more determined to see this project through to the end for one simple reason: You deserve to know what’s in the water you drink and the air you breathe.
This production has been a bit on the scrappy side — with only one contributor (me) for a long time, a limited budget and a long learning curve — but we’re making real progress. Now, we’ve got about 20 volunteers and contributors working on the Coal Ash Chronicles project and we’re about to launch … oh, wait, I can’t tell you yet! (ha, ha!)
In upcoming posts, I’ll tell you about some of the crazy places I’ve slept in during this big adventure, tell you which states have stonewalled us, introduce you to the crew and more. Stay tuned!
Thank you for joining us on the adventure that is collecting America’s coal-ash stories.