Records show Duke, Charlotte came close to airport coal ash plan in 2013

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comMarch 18, 2014 

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Charlotte city officials first disclosed a proposal to move coal ash from the banks of Mountain Island Lake to Charlotte Douglas International Airport last week. But documents obtained Tuesday detail how staff were actually preparing to present the proposal to City Council last year.

Duke Energy approached Charlotte last summer to discuss moving millions of tons of toxic coal ash from unlined pits to a new, fully lined and sealed landfill at the airport last summer, city officials said last week. They said those discussions didn’t lead anywhere and the idea was dropped.

But through a public records request Tuesday, the Observer received documents showing that the plan had progressed to the point of having a draft contract ready, a draft statement announcing the project and plans for an Oct. 28 presentation to City Council.

What wasn’t clear Tuesday was exactly why the city, Duke, and coal ash contractor Charah Inc. mothballed the proposal last year. Charlotte spokesman Keith Richardson directed questions to Duke.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said she couldn’t comment on why the proposal wasn’t acted on last year. “Generally, we really wouldn’t dig into any discussions about negotiations,” Sheehan said.

Late summer and early fall were tumultuous times for both Duke and Charlotte Douglas. The city was fighting the N.C. General Assembly’s plan to take control of Charlotte Douglas and give authority to a new commission. Former Aviation Director Jerry Orr was fighting to get his job back. The commission had its first meeting in November but remains barred from actually running the airport. Orr retired in December.

Meanwhile, Duke was dealing with a lawsuit from environmental groups and state regulators over pollution in Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s drinking water source. In July, the company agreed to settle with state regulators for $99,000 and promised to study the sources of contamination.

The city said last week that Charlotte Douglas would use the coal ash stored at Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake as “structural fill,” a material that would be used to fill and grade airport land for future construction. A similar project has been underway at Asheville’s airport for years.

Duke said last week that it plans to close its coal ash storage ponds at Riverbend after a Feb. 2 spill dumped thousands of gallons of coal ash slurry into the Dan River. Coal ash – the byproduct of burning coal to make electricity – contains potentially toxic heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic.

Duke and the Catawba Riverkeeper plan to speak about the airport proposal at Monday’s City Council meeting. The city has said it will conduct a full review of the plan to make sure that it is safe.

Records show plans for message

On Friday, the city said in a press release that it was “invited to review” Duke’s proposal last week. But documents show city staff had already honed their message for the public and elected officials last year, as the proposal moved toward fruition.

An initial memo from July 5 shows the city evaluating the proposal. In addition to needing an outside consultant, staff listed possible short- and long-term risks. Those included the potential for surface and groundwater contamination, sediment draining to Brown’s Cove, and the question of who would pay to maintain the waterproof liners surrounding the coal ash.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble signed a confidentiality agreement Aug. 9, promising not to disclose the proposal.

By Sept. 19, there was a “communications plan draft.” Key bullet points included “Coal ash is safe,” and “Economic benefits – financial savings to City, economic and airport development and job creation.” The city would announce the plan, possibly at a City Council dinner meeting, then hold a press conference the next day at Charlotte Douglas “to provide visuals of project.”

And by Sept. 24, the city had a “standby” statement prepared to release in case someone got wind of the project. The city would say it was working with Duke and Charah to find a way to safely remove ash from a storage pond and transfer it to the airport. The statement would say that coal ash is regarded as safe to use as a fill material.

“The City of Charlotte is evaluating how each partner takes measures to ensure that coal combustion products are not hazardous and are safe,” the draft statement read. One city staffer circled that phrase and noted, “I’ve said above it is safe, so why (are) we evaluating?”

The city documents say Charlotte Douglas would need 9 million tons of fill material for construction, the same amount used to build the third parallel runway, and coal ash could provide up to 4 million tons. The airport could save $30 million by using the coal ash as a fill material instead of buying dirt, according to the city’s draft statement.

There was no indication in the documents reviewed by the Observer of why the proposal fizzled out between Sept. 24 and the proposed City Council date of Oct. 28.

City Manager Ron Carlee disclosed the proposed plan to council members in a February email. The city had received a public records request from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and determined that it would have to turn over documents about the discussions with Duke.

“To be clear, we were only in preliminary discussions,” wrote Carlee. “I would expect any proposal to be fully vetted by the City Council’s Environmental Committee and by the environmental community.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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