Years before the accidental coal ash spill into the Dan River in February, the waste was being dumped into creeks, wetlands and vacant fields across the state.
Scores of private ash sites were originally proposed for legitimate construction use such as building an airstrip or a parking lot but the construction didnt always take place.
More than 70 ash sites statewide hold about 11 million cubic yards of ash, much of it used in building roads, parking lots and other projects.
But nearly a quarter of the waste sits at six of the largest sites, where about 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash lies in unlined pits, largely unmonitored for potential groundwater contamination.
Over the years the sites have been cited by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with violations for creating dust clouds, for being placed too close to water sources, and for ash erosion into water drainage areas. At one site the ash was dumped into a wetland area.
When they said they had an end use, they didnt have an end use it was a form of disposal, said Ellen Lorscheider, planning and programs branch head of the solid waste section within DENR. There was abuse of our regulations the coal was a disposal site they called structural fill.
As public officials grapple with a solution to safe coal ash storage, the focus has largely been on the future of the 33 ash pits and ponds at power plant facilities that are contaminating nearby groundwater. These sites are operated by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and its Raleigh-based subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, formerly called Progress Energy.
But at the 70-plus ash sites throughout the state, many on private property in eastern North Carolina, are also drawing attention after years of neglect. Even where the ash was used as structural fill to level roadways, for road beds and to stabilize soil under buildings the concern doesnt go away.
Gov. Pat McCrorys proposed Coal Ash Action Plan, now under review by lawmakers in Raleigh, includes a temporary moratorium on the use of coal ash as structural fill in amounts of 5,000 cubic yards or more.
McCrorys coal ash proposal would also start regulating structural fill as landfilled solid waste. It would require state permits, leak-proof liners and groundwater monitoring for structural fill sites, none of which has been required in past years.
Under current law, passed by previous administrations, there are more stringent requirements for the disposal of household garbage than there are for certain coal ash applications, said DENR spokesman Drew Elliot.
The states six biggest ash dumps, including four about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh in Halifax County, contain anywhere from 10 times to 100 times more coal ash than is typically needed for construction. The six sites range in size from 127,176 cubic yards to 905,238 cubic yards, according to state records.
The structural fill sites documented by DENR were mostly built after North Carolina adopted regulations in 1994 to promote the beneficial reuse of coal ash as structural fill. The use of ash for construction fill is widely accepted and encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The states structural fills contain coal ash disgorged by Duke and Progress and reused at their own power plants and other construction sites, as well as waste from smaller industrial operations. Duke once sold the ash for 50 cents to $1 a ton, but ash producers also paid to have it hauled away.
Its not clear how many total structural fill sites exist in the Triangle or statewide or where they are located, however, because sites built before the 1990s are not documented.
What is clear is that the states historic dependence on coal as an energy source to generate electricity produced more ash than the construction industry could use. Duke and Progress for decades have stored excess ash on site in pits and lagoons.
Some enterprising locals saw an opportunity and agreed to haul ash away for a fee, hoping to find a buyer or to use it for development projects.
It was just a great big huge hole there, and we filled it in, said Blackwell Bennett Pierce, owner of Utilities Transport, a trucking company that hauled coal ash between 2004 and 2007 to the Arthurs Creek disposal site in Northampton County, about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh. The site holds 480,612 cubic yards of ash, according to a county deed in the DENR records.
Plumbline Engineering, which designed the ash retention site, paid an administrative penalty of $9,154.88 in 2011 for a number of violations at Arthurs Creek that included erosion problems and coal ash washing into a nearby creek. DENR officials say the problems have been resolved.
We thought maybe we might use it for something one day, Pierce said. But theres no use for it. Nobody wanted it.
Research biologist Dennis Lemly, who works for Wake Forest University and the U.S. Forest Service, has studied the effects of coal ash contaminants and said dry ash storage sites are long-festering problems and overdue for stricter oversight.
The two operative words are unregulated and mostly unmonitored, Lemly said. It raises the larger underlying issue with the state regulatory system.
Problems in Nash since 2002
A Nash County site called Swift Creek has caused the most chronic environmental headaches. It accepted coal ash for more than a decade through 2003 and resulted in contamination of lead, arsenic and sulfates in shallow groundwater, a problem still awaiting a solution.
DENR on May 16 gave the sites operators 90 days to come up with groundwater corrective measures. The agency first cited Swift Creek for violations back in 2002.
Resolving ash-related problems can take years because DENR doesnt issue permits for structural fill sites and has limited authority to regulate ash disposal, Lorschneider said. Additionally, the projects involve a host of conflicting interests: engineers, property owners, ash haulers and dust suppressors.
They are fighting among themselves as to who should take responsibility for it, Lorschneider said.
Swift Creek began accepting ash in 1992, but environmental regulators didnt realize the extent of the problems there until 2002, when Swift Creek project operators notified DENR they planned to expand the site to accept more ash. Thats when state inspectors noticed that the 2002 plans didnt match the original 1991 plans, and that the ash had been dumped into a drainage area and was soaking in water, which causes leaching of toxic chemicals.
The facility operators agreed to install groundwater monitoring wells in 2005, which confirmed suspicions that the ash was percolating chemicals. By then the site contained 134,000 cubic yards of ash.
In 2006, the site operators paid a $4,000 administrative penalty and submitted a dewatering plan to dry out the ash. That plan, which diverts a drainage channel, has largely worked, but the chemicals remain in the groundwater.
A July 2013 groundwater monitoring report by Sherrill Environmental of Durham said the eight water samples showed no contamination of coal ash chemicals in deep groundwater monitoring wells.
The companies that worked the Swift Creek project were ReUse Technology, the broker that filed the 1991 notification of the project, and Full Circle Solutions, which bought the site from ReUse in 2003, according to DENR records. Full Circle CEO Robert Waldrop, who is based in Georgia, did not respond to questions about Swift Creek development plans for the structural fill or why the problems are taking so long to resolve.
Full Circles lawyer, David Franchina in Charlotte, said by email the companies and their consultants had been working with DENR for 10 years and plan to resolve the issues.
Company denies liability
The ash at Swift Creek came from Cogentrix, a Charlotte energy company that operated small coal-burning power plants throughout North Carolina. The Cogentrix power plants sold electricity to large utility companies for years, but Cogentrix has since sold off the plants, and some have been converted to other fuel sources.
When it owned the plants, Cogentrix had the ash hauled away and has washed its hands of any liability.
The transfer of responsibility would take place when the materials go into the contractors vehicle, said Cogentrix spokesman Jeff Freeman. Were out of it completely.
State regulations require that structural fill proposals must submit a notice to DENR and be constructed safely to prevent erosion. They cant be put within 50 feet of a wetland or stream, within 100 feet of a drinking water source, and within 2 feet of the seasonal high groundwater table.
State regulations also prohibit speculatively storing coal ash for some potential future use. Speculative storing can be avoided if at least 75 percent of the ash is used or sold every year for beneficial reuse in construction projects.
Henry Long, part owner of the Arthurs Creek property, said he was paid an average of $1,400 a month to accept ash at the site from the Roanoke Valley Energy power plant owned by the Westmoreland Coal Co. His responsibility was watering and dust suppression of the ash, and in the 1990s he said he hauled ash for Pierces trucking company.
When you dump that stuff out, its like talcum powder almost, Long said.
After a local farmer complained in 2006, DENR slapped Long and Plumbline with a Notice of Violation for creating a very large dust cloud of coal ash.
DENRs second citation, in 2009, noted coal ash stockpiled on the property, and described that ash south of the pile occupied an extensive wetland area measuring 2 to 3 inches in depth.
Samples taken from the wetland area revealed high levels of arsenic, calcium, selenium and iron, according to DENR documents.
Agency spokeswoman Susan Massengale said the groundwater at Arthurs Creek has not been tested.
Russell Henry Grant, who did surveying work for Plumbline Engineers on structural fill sites, said some of the ash in Halifax County was beneficially reused for construction in the 1990s a Family Dollar, a fire station in Weldon, a Basnight building supply store and an overpass for N.C. 125.
But then DENR inspectors started visiting the ash sites and citing violations, said Grant, who is part-owner of the Arthurs Creek property.
We werent getting paid enough to handle all the problems, Grant said. Everyone just kind of ran when DENR started issuing violations. Everyones scared of it.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed to this report.