As likelihood of new NC coal ash legislation increases, so do questions about Asheville ponds, nearby groundwater

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Duke, NC enviro agency give state commission updates

Duke Energy North Carolina State President Paul Newton talks to reporters after a legislative hearing Tuesday concerning the state's coal ash sites. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Duke Energy North Carolina State President Paul Newton talks to reporters after a legislative hearing Tuesday concerning the state’s coal ash sites. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH — New legislation including tighter coal ash disposal regulations and cleanup requirements is growing more likely as lawmakers prepare to return to Raleigh for their first legislative session since a massive February coal ash spill on the Dan River highlighted years of allegedly scant oversight.

At a meeting Tuesday of the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission, representatives of Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources briefed committee members on the work clearing the river. They also presented updated plans for the assessment of the company’s 33 ponds on 14 sites around the state, including the ongoing removal of coal ash from the utility’s Asheville Steam Plant, which is located across Interstate 26 from the French Broad River.

Paul Newton, president of Duke Energy’s North Carolina operations, reiterated a plan for the Asheville plant outlined in a letter last month to Gov. Pat McCrory. It includes moving to a dry ash process or possibly closing the coal fired units. It also included the continued removal of existing ash to a lined landfill at the Asheville Regional Airport, where it is being used for fill in an expansion project.

Beyond that, Newton said the company has not developed a proposal for what to do with the remaining ash in an older pond and how to contain groundwater contamination documented by environmental groups and confirmed by DENR.

Newton said the company would complete a list of options for each of the 14 sites by year’s end, followed by a more comprehensive engineering review. The more extensive reviews would take six to 12 months to complete for each site, he said. For now, it is uncertain what will be proposed for Asheville.

“By the end of the year we’ll have a strategy for each site,” he said.

“We’re going to go to dry fly ash or retire the Asheville units, one or the other,” Newton continued.

DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville office, said that there’s still a lot of ambiguity in what the company is going to put on the table for the Asheville site.

He said the company does appear committed to continue removal at one of two ponds on the site, but there’s concern about the other and Duke’s preference to cap the sites rather than excavate the ash.

The Asheville site, like the others in the state, already shows groundwater contamination, Gerken said. Capping, he added, doesn’t get at the problem that already exists.

The Asheville location is in a particularly bad place, he said, with a buried stream under the site as well as its location on a slope between a lake and the river.

“Capping in place cannot be a part of any solution,” he said.

Without a strong message from the legislature, including a timetable and requirements for removal, Gerken said, the company will move to do the simplest solution at each site.

“As an institution, they’ve shown a preference for taking the cheapest way out,” he said.

McGrady: Joint NC House, Senate plan likely

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said he expects there will be coal ash legislation in the upcoming short session, which starts in mid-May. McGrady said it is likely to be a joint House and Senate plan that sets some timelines and parameters for dealing with the sites.

McGrady said he would push for better monitoring, inspection and regulation as well as a ban on new ash ponds.

“I think we need to strengthen regulation of coal ash ponds and specifically prohibit construction of new ones,” he said. Any plan, he said, would have to include the funding to back it up.

“This is going to come at a cost,” he said. “I think, on DENR’s side, you can’t give them a lot of new responsibilities and expect to not have to pay for it.”

Asheville was in better shape than most sites, McGrady said, because of the ongoing fill project at the airport, which will eventually be covered with a concrete slab. But it still not clear what the long-run plan is for the plant. He said company officials have said that it may be difficult to close the plant and still handle the load requirements for Asheville. The final plan for the ash ponds at the site are also unclear.

“I don’t think there is a plan yet, he said. “They’ve got to really go through and evaluate the options for disposal.

Also uncertain, for now, is the cost of cleanup and remediation at the sites. Newton presented a cost estimate that estimated if all pants are converted to a dry process, the four critical sites, including Asheville, are cleaned up and the others capped in place it would cost up to $2.5 billion. Requiring the same plus full excavation at all 14 sites would cost as much as $10 billion, according to the estimate.

The company has not said whether it will seek a rate increase to pay for the cleanup. State utility regulators said Tuesday that the top end of the estimate could raise utility bills as much as 20 percent.


Continuing investigative report

For more from Carolina Public Press, see “Asheville Coal Ash: Mounting Concerns”

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About the Author

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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