Coal ash, infamous for its recent splash into the Dan River, also lies along Charlotte’s outerbelt.
It’s next to a Huntersville car dealership and under a Lowe’s store in Mooresville.
The ash was used to level ground and fill gullies. Duke Energy once sold it for 50 cents to $1 a ton, disposing of waste – and a liability – it would otherwise have had to store in ponds or landfills.
At least 1.8 million cubic yards of dry ash are buried in nearly two dozen places around Charlotte, not counting power plants. That’s enough to cover 1,100 acres a foot deep in ash.
An unknown amount of wet ash, removed from ponds and regulated separately, was also used as fill material. The state can’t locate records before 2011 that would show where or how large those sites are.
State standards are so minimal that even property owners, much less their neighbors, might not know what’s underfoot. And while ash has a known ability to contaminate groundwater, fill sites are rarely tested.
State officials acknowledge the need for stronger regulation.
Gov. Pat McCrory said last week that he would temporarily ban large coal ash fills, but make exceptions for its use in airport runways and roads. Duke has proposed hauling ash to Charlotte’s airport.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said four years ago that ash fills should be regulated like landfills, which require liners and groundwater testing. That hasn’t happened.
“There’s absolutely no oversight of these structural fills and that seems problematic,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who has pushed legislation to tighten ash rules since 2009. “It’s sort of a silent, lurking issue that’s not getting any attention.”
Risks just like Duke’s ponds
State inspectors have focused on Duke Energy’s 33 North Carolina ash ponds since a spectacular spill into the Dan River on Feb. 2.
Those ponds have no liners to keep the potentially toxic metals in ash away from groundwater. But they’re encircled by wells, which are used to detect metals. Groundwater near ponds at all of Duke’s coal-fired power plants in the state is contaminated.
Structural fills regulated as solid waste are also unlined. But only one owner among the 77 fill sites across the state is required to regularly test groundwater.
Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with Wake Forest University and the U.S. Forest Services who studies the effects of coal ash contaminants, said ash fills pose the same hazards as ash ponds.
“Structural fill using coal ash is just like moving the original unlined pit of ash at the power plant to another unlined pit location,” Lemly said. “There is no reduction of environmental or public health risk from leaching of toxins, although a catastrophic spill into a river may be avoided.”
John Daniels, UNC Charlotte’s interim chair of civil and environmental engineering, studies the ability of metals in ash to leach into groundwater. Years of experience with ash fills have revealed no pattern of environmental problems, he said.
“We have well-defined procedures and approaches to safely manage this material,” said Daniels, who has consulted for Duke. “When you find concerns, it’s generally where these practices are not followed.”
Most of the known fill sites in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties were built in the 1990s, using ash from Duke or textile manufacturer Fieldcrest Cannon. Duke also built large structural fills at its power plants on lakes Norman and Wylie.
The solid waste rules leave it to the fill-site owner to prevent contamination. Duke made clear to ash buyers that they assumed responsibility for compliance, state records show.
At an ash fill site near Rocky Mount, groundwater still shows high levels of barium, arsenic and lead six years after it was first detected. The owner was fined $4,000 in 2006. Contaminated water was also found at a fill site in Northampton County; that site’s owner was fined $13,875.
Without groundwater monitoring at other sites, said Ellen Lorscheider, a N.C. Division of Waste Management official, “we don’t have the data to show if there is or if there isn’t” contamination.
The roads, parking lots and buildings that cover most fill sites serve as a protective cap, she said, keeping rainwater from soaking through the ash and into groundwater.
A round of state inspections in 2009, after a massive ash spill in Tennessee, found violations at 15 fill sites, including eight near Charlotte. Owners of six sites broke rules intended to prevent ash from reaching water.
State records of the 23 Charlotte-area sites include photos of badly eroded fill sites and uncovered ash deposits. Solid-waste inspectors reported a stream running through one site and an undisclosed well at another. Their reports don’t show any follow-up action.
Much unknown about fill sites
State records don’t reveal the full extent of ash-fill sites in North Carolina.
Some were built before 1994, when North Carolina started regulating them as solid waste. The state has required annual reports on wet ash taken from ponds since 2006.
Duke says it didn’t sell ash for off-site use until the early 1990s, when ash began to accumulate in the ponds where it had settled for decades. Most of the ash disposed outside its power plants was in dry form, said spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann. Most ash that Duke now produces and is not used for other purposes, such as making cement, is stored dry in landfills.
Solid waste records show that 11 million cubic yards of ash has been buried in 77 structural fills throughout North Carolina since 1994. The volume of ash isn’t listed for seven sites because they pre-date the rules. Ash buried at 11 more sites isn’t recorded on property deeds, as the rules require.
Solid waste officials cited the N.C. Department of Transportation in 2009 for not filing documents about ash used under a Rowan County road project.
Even when ash notices are attached to deeds, property owners can be unaware of them.
“Your telling me we have coal ash here is the first I’ve heard about it,” said Huntersville Ford owner Dan Parks. The dealership leases a 15-acre site where, state records show, 75,000 tons of ash was dumped in the late 1990s. The property was sold in 2002.
The deed to the 25 acres in Mooresville that home-improvement retailer Lowe’s bought in 1998 gave no hint that 500,000 tons of ash is buried there. Lowe’s says the ash’s presence was disclosed by the previous owner.
“The use of coal ash as structural fill is heavily regulated, and the previous owners of this property insured the site was compliant and secured the proper approvals at the time of development,” Lowe’s said in a statement. “Site testing since we have owned the property indicates the material is not hazardous.”
State officials also can’t find records for a large fill site in Gaston County.
Duke and the property owner described the site to the Observer in 2009. It is a 450,000-cubic-yard fill in a horse pasture near Lake Wylie. No liners were laid under the ash, and nearby homes rely on groundwater.
State officials, in routine testing, sampled a community well closest to the site in 2011. They found no metals suggesting contamination, but weren’t aware of the nearby ash deposit.
Proposals to tighten rules
The legislature’s Environmental Review Commission is mulling ash measures that could be introduced in May, including the proposals last week from McCrory. Minority Democrats have said they will seek to close all of Duke’s ash ponds and study structural fills.
“We have discussed that the time is coming for us to change the rules,” added Lorscheider, the solid waste official.
Paul Crissman, a former state solid-waste director, attributes the relative lack of regulation of structural fills to “the power of a coal industry that pretty much could get its way and an agency that couldn’t do any more work than it was already doing.”
DENR, where Crissman worked for 31 years, could do little more to enforce the rules than respond to complaints, he said. Crissman retired as solid-waste section chief in early 2011.
“When you hear somebody say, ‘Trust us, and we’ll do the right things,’ this is what you get,” he said of the recent ash headlines.
DENR recommended tougher standards for fill sites in 2010, as the Environmental Protection Agency weighed the first federal standards for coal ash. EPA says it will release the new rules in December.
Crissman said the fills deserve more attention and the public more notice.
“The sad thing is the handler of the coal ash is probably out of the business,” he said. “The (ash) generator probably needs to put in a couple of wells, because they paid a cheap price to get rid of a lot of ash.
“And we need some fences and signs to tell people.”