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Coal Ash Could Help Airport, But Waste Ponds Have More Pollutants


Duke Energy says it will remove the coal ash controversially stored on the banks of Mountain Island Lake. That has long been a goal of environmental groups. After that announcement, Duke quickly offered a proposal to the City of Charlotte: use the ash at Charlotte-Douglas airport, as fill for land, for new runways, taxiways, and other projects. That proposal from Duke could be a cheap option for an airport whose calling card is its low cost.

Environmental groups have long demanded Duke remove the ash, the toxic byproduct from burning coal, which is stored next to the coal plants in ponds, where it seeps into nearby waterways. Duke has been under renewed pressure to stop the seeps since at least 30,000 tons of the waste spilled into the Dan River last month. On Wednesday, in a letter to state regulators, Duke CEO Lynn Good announced the company would remove the ash from a few sites, including the Riverbend Steam Station, which sits on Mountain Island Lake.

Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation’s Rick Gaskins expressed a muted sense of victory, although he says Duke should also clean the Catawba river after removing the ash.

“It definitely feels like we’re moving in the right direction,” says Gaskins.

Duke offered the ash to the City of Charlotte as fill for land, for the airport. Millions of tons of coal ash are recycled every year, mostly as concrete and cement, but also as road bed and landfill. City officials quickly announced, but were careful not to dismiss or endorse, the idea.

“I think it’s an opportunity,” says Charlotte energy and sustainability manager Rob Phocas. “The community is facing a public safety and environmental issue, and what happened at Dan River—not that Riverbend has the same layout—shows one of the things that could happen. So, we’re committed to investigating this and finding a good solution for the community.”

There are also a lot of possibilities. The airport is considering a slew of possible projects, including, eventually, an extra runway. Airport officials say dirt for the last runway—9 million cubic yards of it—cost $70 million.

For the past seven years, Duke has been providing coal ash for landfill to the Asheville Regional Airport for no cost. A similar deal in Charlotte would be right up the alley of an airport that prides itself on the lowest-cost of its size in the nation. That is, Phocas says, if it is safe.

“We still need to take a look at—even if we are fully encapsulating it—what are the risks to the residents, to the water quality, too,” he says.

Duke has proposed using the same contractor as in Asheville, environmental company Charah, to do the work. The company encapsulates the coal ash with plastic, which it says prevents the ash from leaching into the ground or water.

Gaskins praised removal of the ash from the ponds, and offered cautious enthusiasm for the proposal. One potential problem, he says, is that the ash ponds do not just contain coal ash.

“This particular permit [at Riverbend, from state regulators] said they could put laboratory waste, they could put boiler blow down waste, they could put de-greasing waste into the ash ponds,” says Gaskins. “So it’s not just coal ash in there.”

Duke declined to comment on the record.

“We believe the Project will benefit the City by allowing for an environmentally sound solution and use for all the coal ash from the Riverbend Steam Station, while providing the Charlotte Airport with graded land that can be used for future development,” the company said in its letter to city officials.

The Charotte City Council has invited Duke and Rick Gaskins to give their thoughts on the proposal at its meeting on March 24th.