EDEN - Duke Energy has begun removing coal ash from a half dozen old coal-fired power plants across the Carolinas. One of those was the Dan River plant in Eden, North Carolina, on the Virginia border, where a major spill two years ago prompted new rules for coal ash cleanup and storage.
Since October, workers have been removing a mixture of dirt and coal ash from a tall mound near the decommissioned Dan River coal plant. Excavators scoop it up into trucks that haul it to the side of a new 2-mile rail spur Duke has built into the plant. There, it's loaded into specially lined and covered rail cars.
It took nearly two years to get to this point. Duke had to build rail line, hire contractors and consultants, and get federal and state permits to move the ash.
"This is priority one for Duke Energy right now. This is the most important thing that many of us have worked on for several years now,” Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said.
It's a massive and expensive project.
“We have an army of engineers and technical staff that have developed the closure plans for these sites,” Brooks said.
Similar cleanups are under way at other retired plants in North and South Carolina, including the Riverbend plant in Mount Holly, northwest of Charlotte.
Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned to generate electricity. It's been accumulating at Dan River since that plant opened in the 1940s. Altogether, about 3 million tons of the stuff stored at the retired plant will be hauled by rail to a landfill in Amelia County, in central Virginia. It's a concern because it contains heavy metals, such as arsenic and selenium, which can be toxic in high concentrations.
Brooks says Duke always planned to dispose of the ash after it decommissioned the plant in 2012. But that work became urgent because of what happened on Feb. 2, 2014. That's when a storm water pipe began leaking water and ash from a storage pond into the Dan River. Over the following weeks 23 million gallons of water and 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed into the waterway before the leak was stopped.
After investigations and legislative hearings, state lawmakers passed the Coal Ash management Act in 2014. It requires Duke to clean up coal ash stored at all 14 of its plants across the state.
Four sites were ranked "high priority" - Dan River and Riverbend, the Sutton plant near Wilmington, and a plant near Asheville. These sites must be cleaned up by 2019.
"It's not as simple as just going out and digging up coal ash,” Brooks said. “There's a lot of work that has to be done in order to perform this work safely and efficiently. But we've made lot of prioress and we will make the August 2019 deadline for this Dan River Site. "
That's assuming state and federal environmental regulators make progress on issuing the final permits. (They’re needed so Duke can drain and clean up coal ash ponds.) Brooks said if those permits take too long, it could be tough to make the deadline.