Two years ago, 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled near Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in Eden, North Carolina. That prompted new state rules and forced Duke to speed coal ash cleanups there and at other old coal plants, including Riverbend near Charlotte. Some environmentalists support Duke's approach, while others are fighting it. WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks has been visiting some of these sites and has this report.
Rail cars are squealing along new tracks at the Riverbend Steam Station, on Mountain Island Lake. They’re on their way to pick up coal ash for the 140-mile trip to a new landfill in central North Carolina.
Coal ash – what’s left after burning coal – contains lead, chromium, selenium and other toxic elements. Not what you want in or near your water supply. But coal-burning plants need water to make steam, which is why most were built along waterways. So, that’s where most coal ash is.
"They are propped up right on the banks of these lakes that serve as drinking water reservoirs," says Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins. "So you not only have ongoing contamination of groundwater and ultimately surface water and the lakes themselves, you have a very dangerous game of toxic Jenga going on."
Duke has three coal plants, including Riverbend, along the Catawba, which serves as the Charlotte region’s primary source for drinking water.
About five million tons of ash accumulated at Riverbend between 1929 … when the plant opened … and 2013, when it shut down. Now, Duke is moving it all out because of tougher state and federal rules adopted two years ago.
Contractors are excavating dirt and ash from a 70-foot hill, which overlooks Riverbend’s two coal ash ponds. Duke created the ponds to keep coal ash wet so it wouldn’t blow off. Duke spokeswoman Catherine Butler explains how the pond water was filtered through pipes called risers, and made its way to Mountain Island Lake.
"It would flow into that riser structure and then be discharged into the secondary basin, where it would have the settling out process again, and then the riser structure in the secondary basin is between the trees there. And through that is where you have the outfall of the treated water into Mountain Island Lake," she said.
Coal ash is easy to see in the ponds. But there's another batch that’s easy to miss.
A thriving patch of woods has grown up where ash was first dumped in the 1950s. Those woods will be cleared to remove the contaminated soil.
Altogether, Duke stores coal ash at 14 current and retired coal-burning plants in North Carolina. Under the state’s 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, four were classified high priority - including Riverbend and Dan River. Coal ash must be removed from those sites by 2019.
Dan River’s ash is going to a lined landfill in central Virginia. Most of the coal ash from Riverbend and Wilmington is going to old clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties that are being converted to landfills. The company chose them because they were available immediately, and because the clay offers a natural barrier.
"We had to look at not only what was physically available to accept ash, but what had the right technology," says Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks. "So we’re looking at lined solutions, these are solutions that include natural and synthetic barriers to protect the coal ash and to keep it separated from ground water and the environment."
Environmentalists have mixed opinions about Duke's solution. Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center says Duke’s plan is better than keeping coal ash in unlined sites near waterways.
"It eliminates the risk of catastrophic failure, as at Dan River, and virtually eliminates any risk of pollution of our rivers and lakes and drinking water supplies," Holleman said.
But Therese Vick and her colleagues at the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense league disagree. She's working with residents in Chatham and Lee counties to stop Duke from hauling coal ash to the old clay mines.
“The solution is not spreading the pollution, because you’re going to have groundwater contamination wherever it’s moved to," Vick says.
One reason residents oppose Duke’s plan is that they already have their own coal ash worries - coal ash ponds at a now closed coal-fired plant on the Cape Fear River, a drinking water source for the region. It's not too far from the Brickhaven Mine, in Moncure, in Chatham County.
Meanwhile, residents also complain that the coal ash shipments have brought truck traffic and trains blocking their roads.
Duke admits trucks are a problem. It wants to haul the ash by rail because it’s more efficient. An 85-car train carries 8,500 tons of ash in one trip, or the equivalent of 420 truckloads. But not all the new rail lines from high priority sites are completed. Until then, trucks will be used to help meet the 2019 deadline.
While landfill siting is usually a local function, Chatham and Lee counties didn't have much of a say over Duke's plan to use the old clay mines. In passing the Coal Ash Management Act two years ago, lawmakers prohibited the two counties from blocking Duke’s plan.
Eventually, Duke agreed to compensate them: $18 million for Chatham County; $12 million for Lee.
Residents also say the state moved too quickly to approve permits for the new landfills, and is shoving coal ash down their throats.
"They just don’t care about us," says Rhonda Whitley of Moncure. "They’re just forcing it upon us. And to me that’s the biggest atrocity is 'Oh yeah, we had a public hearing. Yeah, we signed it.' They’re being very glossy and perfunctory about what they have to do. But they’re not listening. They don’t really care."
Tom Reeder, North Carolina’s deputy environmental secretary, says residents have nothing to worry about.
"There’s a tremendous amount of safeguards in place, in terms of these liners and leachate collection systems, and things like that, to make sure these do not ultimately have an impact to the environment," Reeder says.
Still, there’s a mountain of distrust in state government. Therese Vick, the community organizer, thinks state officials are too cozy with the utility. She points to a meeting at the Governor’s mansion on June 1, 2015, where Duke CEO Lynn Good and other Duke executives dined with Governor McCrory and Environmental Secretary Donald van der Vaart.
"[It] was four days before the final permits were issued for these two sites. Four days before," Vick says.
Duke CEO Good isn’t saying what was discussed at that dinner. After a speech in Charlotte last month, reporters asked her about that meeting.
"We meet with leaders around the state all the time, whether it’s important stakeholders in the environmental community, whether it’s legislators, regulators or the governor. It’s ordinary course for us. We’re an important part of the state. We want to be engaged with our leaders," she said.
But did they talk about coal ash?
"We talked about a broad range of things, and it’s part of our outreach to stakeholders, as I said a moment ago,"
Meanwhile, all those trucks, excavators and rail cars aren’t cheap: Duke expects to spend about $4 billion on coal ash cleanups in the Carolinas.
So who’s going to pay for it? Spokesman Jeff Brooks explains:
"We see coal ash as being the byproduct of the service that we provide," he says. "So the electricity you use every day, it doesn’t come free and it doesn’t without costs with our fuel. And so that is something we have to address now as part of the closure of these plants."
In other words, you’ll eventually see it on your electric bill.