Duke Energy and McCrory administration still seeking solution for NC coal ash ponds

A Duke Energy power plant and coal ash ponds outside Asheville.   Credit zen Sutherland

A Duke Energy power plant and coal ash ponds outside Asheville.
Credit zen Sutherland

The biggest energy provider in North Carolina, Duke Energy, continues to roll in the news for their problems in the ash ponds around N.C. and Governor McCrory is finally responding, as is Duke Energy. 

However the response from McCrory is not what the environmental organisations wanted. As Charlotte Observer reported earlier in April, McCrory  calls for site-specific closures – ash to be removed from some ponds but left in others, drained and capped to keep water out.

“The governor and I are adamant that one size probably will not fit all 33 ash ponds,” environment Secretary John Skvarla said for the Observer. “The engineering and science is going to be a little more complicated than digging them all up and moving them to landfills.

Asheville Citizen Times reported April 17, that State Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and Senate President Phil Berger will sponsor a bill in the upcoming session to toughen requirements on the handling of coal ash.

The bill will contain more stringent requirements than what the governor outlined, including the setting of deadlines for the removal ash at the Asheville plant and some of the others, Apodaca said.
“We’re going to mandate actual timeframes to close these (ponds), especially those that are near water sources,” he said. “We’re determined to get rid of the wet ash pond at Asheville.”

None of the professors or staff at WCU could think of a way to fix the Asheville Plant in a reasonable way, and although there was some discussion of shutting the plant down, Lauren Bishop, the Chief Sustainability Officer at WCU, said she did not think that shutting the plant down would work at all, given the energy and economic needs of the surrounding area.McCrory’s plan contains closure plan for the Asheville ponds, which cover 91 acres next to the French Broad River.  The attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville, D.J. Gerken is not very optimistic.

“It does require a closure plan for Asheville, but doesn’t say what a closure plan is required to accomplish,” Gerken said for Asheville Citizen-Times. “It requires a plan, but no specific, substantial action.”

Duke is looking for a similar solution defending their handling of the coal ash problems. The company is also trying to keep four of their key directors. According to the report from WNCN two major shareholders, the California public employees pension fund and the New York city pension funds, wrote the SEC on April 15 asking that four Duke directors be removed.
“Inspection reports dating back to 2006 obtained by WNCN Investigates show Duke Energy had long known of potential issues with a pipe under the coal ash pond located near the Dan River. At the time, inspectors recommended using a camera to check inside the pipe for any leaks.”

In March, WRAL  reported that Gov. McCrory said that his administration “will ask lawmakers for legislation that would require Duke Energy to “close or convert” 33 coal ash ponds at 14 locations across the state. The set of proposals will also include stricter rules for handling the material left over after coal is burned for fuel.”

The NC Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) arrived on the scene soon after the Feb. 2 Dan River spill conducting water tests and ensuring that everyone affected by the spill knew about the spill. Duke Energy estimated that there was between 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the river.

The first pipe was plugged by Feb. 8 in order to stop the spillage, but during an inspection on Feb. 14, a second pipe was discovered to be leaking untreated wastewater and was plugged by Feb. 21, according to the DENR timeline.  Duke Energy has more information on their website about the Dan River spill.

The Dan River spill opened up a can of worms linking governor McCrory’s administration with Duke Energy. The U.S. Justice department has opened a criminal investigation and served a plethora of subpoenas throughout this process according to a Charlotte Observer article for a variety of people and organizations.

The DENR received a subpoena for “ash-related records for all 14 of Duke’s active and retired coal-fired plants in the state.” Duke Energy also received a subpoena, but they did not disclose what the subpoena specifically asked for.

On Feb. 19, subpoenas were filed for 18 state water-quality officials. These officials are to report “communications going back to 2009 but any payments and gifts from Duke,” before a federal grand jury sometime in March.

On March 3, according to a DENR press release,  the state issued five more notices of violations “for failure to obtain a federally mandated National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, stormwater permit.”

The facilities receiving notices are Belews Creek Steam Station, Cliffside Steam Station, Lee Steam Electric Plant, Roxboro Steam Electric Power Plant and Sutton Steam Electric Plant.

However, these plants are not the only ones who have had environmental issues. Environmental groups including NC groups Appalachian Voices and French Broad Riverkeeper partnered up and filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2012.

They filed the suit in order “to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete its rule-making process and finalize public health safeguards against toxic coal ash,” according to a press release from Earthjustice posted on Carolina Public Press.

One of the plants that were heavily involved in the lawsuit was the Asheville Power Station, which “stores coal ash in unlined lagoons, which has led to ground and drinking water contamination in nearby wells. There have also been high levels of arsenic found in a stream on the power station’s property, and illegal seepages along the dam leading into the French Broad River. Mercury pollution is a concern here as well, as it is from every coal-fired power plant,” according to the Western North Carolina Alliance website.

For more information about the Asheville Power Station lawsuit, click here.

The WNCA website also stated,

“In 2013, WNCA sued Duke Energy for the illegal discharge of coal ash into surface and groundwater sources. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources took over this suit, and we are still waiting on a settlement that will protect future water quality and identify how to correctly store coal ash waste.”

North Carolina Health News reported on something that in often neglected – the health impact from the pollution from the ash ponds. As of their tests, there was contamination from the spill, but not enough to affect humans if ingested, and the water was declared safe. However, local groups such as NC WARN are also warning people about the use of the coal-fired plants.

However, Duke Energy is attempting to get some good press out about their plants, allowing local officials to look over the plants again.

Gov. McCrory’s previously mentioned plan would “include a budget request for 19 new staffers at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to enforce anti-pollution laws. He is also asking lawmakers to:

  • bring coal ash under the same solid waste laws that govern household trash. Currently, coal ash can be stored in unlined pits with less oversight than applies to trash that comes out of household kitchen trashcans.
  • increase monitoring and oversight for coal ash when it is used a structural fill as part of a construction project.
  • require that operators of coal ash ponds, mainly Duke Energy, submit “operational and emergency-action plans to the state.”
  • require utilities more quickly report coal ash spills to state regulators. Skvarla said the McCrory proposal would ask that utilities notify the state within 24 hours of a problem, instead of the current 48 hours.
  • require more inspections of coal ash dams. That would include weekly inspections by the dams owners and annual inspections by a third party. ” according to WRAL.

The table below shows all of North Carolina’s coal plants, even those that Duke is in the process of decommissioning. The information was compiled from Duke Energy’s website. Click on the various markers to find out more about each plant’s status.

About Ceillie Simkiss

Ceillie Simkiss is a senior at Western Carolina University in the Communications program focusing on Journalism, with a minor in art. Currently enrolled in Features and Magazine Writing, she works as Editor-in-Chief for The Western Carolina Journalist. She also works for the Western Carolinian as a Photographer and News Designer. She can be found on Facebook (Ceillie Simkiss), Twitter (@CandidCeillie) and LinkedIn (Ceillie Simkiss).