Much of the coal ash at two Duke Energy power plants will stay on site, in lined landfills, the company said Wednesday.
The plans for the Dan River plant in Eden and Wilmington’s Sutton plant move Duke a step closer to meeting a 2019 deadline set by legislators to excavate ash at four high-priority power plants.
The ash, which contains heavy metals that can be toxic, will be encased in clay and synthetic liners to protect its surroundings. Groundwater will be monitored to detect contamination.
Environmental advocates who have insisted that Duke move its ash away from water supplies called it a good plan.
The retired Dan River plant is infamous for spilling 39,000 tons of ash into the river near the Virginia line in early 2014.
Duke announced plans in November to ship by rail 1.2 million tons of its ash to a landfill in eastern Virginia. The plant’s remaining 1.4 million tons will go in the landfill announced Wednesday, beginning in early 2017.
“This is definitely a good step in the right direction,” said Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, which advocates for the river. “There’s not a good way to dispose of millions of tons of material, (but) this is the most environmentally responsible way to do it.”
Keeping the ash on Duke’s property offers two benefits, Haworth said. It avoids trucking the material through communities en route to disposal elsewhere, and leaves the liability for contamination with Duke.
“Our preference is to store coal ash at or near our plant sites, when possible,” John Elnitsky, Duke’s chief of ash basin strategy, said in a statement. “Siting these landfills on plant property minimizes impacts to the local community while maximizing the safe and efficient storage of coal ash at these locations.”
Duke’s plan to move 2 million tons of ash from the Sutton power plant to open-pit clay mines in Chatham County, by contrast, has met opposition.
The company said Wednesday only that it is in discussions with Chatham officials and hopes to begin the shipments soon.
Sutton’s coal-fired power plant retired in 2013, the same year Duke agreed to pay up to $1.8 million to extend a water line to a nearby community in the path of an ash plume in groundwater.
Duke is now fighting a $25.1 million state fine for groundwater contamination from the plant.
Sutton’s remaining 5.2 million tons of ash will go into a new landfill on the site, Duke said. Construction will start in early 2016, Duke said, with filling to start later that year.
“In terms of the design and nature of a landfill, it’s a tremendous improvement in how the ash is stored,” said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over Sutton’s ash.
Placing dry ash in lined storage well away from rivers, he said, is “what we have been advocating for, and tremendous progress.”
State and local permits will be needed to build the two landfills.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Duke’s plans “are consistent with the excavation plans they submitted to us in November and with the comments we sent back to them.”
Permitting can’t go forward until the Environmental Protection Agency rules on discharge permits for Duke’s plants that are now under review.
Coal-ash legislation adopted last summer sets minimum standards for ash landfills at high-risk power plants.
Those call for bottom liners consisting of at least two feet of compacted soil and synthetic liners and an upper synthetic membrane. Systems must be in place to collect water leaching from the ash, and the landfill has to be at least 300 feet from lakes or rivers.
DENR officials otherwise likened the standards that will apply to the Dan River and Sutton landfills to those for industrial landfills.
Standards for industrial landfills are generally less stringent than for municipal solid-waste landfills, which receive a broader array of wastes. Environmental impact studies aren’t required, for instance, and they can be positioned closer to property lines.
On-site landfills won’t work for all of Duke’s 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.
Among them is the Riverbend plant west of Charlotte, another of the four high-priority plants under the 2019 excavation deadline. Riverbend sits on a protected water supply, Mountain Island Lake, and isn’t suited to a landfill, said Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks.
Ash from the Asheville power plant, another high-priority plant, is being trucked to a lined storage site at the city’s airport.
The fate of ash at Duke’s other 10 coal plants in the state is unclear. Legislation passed last year gives the company until 2029 to close the ash ponds at those plants.
The coal-ash law allows ash ponds deemed to be of low risk – a determination to be overseen by the new Coal Ash Management Commission – to be drained of water and capped in place.
Katherine Peralta contributed.