Environmental regulators don't know enough about the extent of groundwater contamination at coal ash plants across the state to determine which ones pose the biggest threat, a legislative commission was told Wednesday.
Beyond the four sites that a state law this summer required to be excavated as soon as possible, 10 other plants will be ranked according to whether they should also be excavated or capped and left where they are. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has begun gathering information to see whether coal ash contaminants have spread into hundreds of public and private wells near the plants, and how far down into the ground it has reached.
"We don't have the faintest idea what's going on underneath these coal ash ponds," Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources, told the state Environmental Review Commission. "It's impossible to prioritize without this data."
The meeting was the commission's first opportunity to learn what progress has been made since the legislature passed the state's first coal ash regulations. The legislation followed the February spill of tons of the material into the Dan River near Virginia. The spill was attributed to faulty drainage pipes beneath ponds. There are 32 such ponds in the state, and they must all be capped or moved by 2029.
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Commissioners heard from several state officials and from the leader of Duke Energy's coal ash cleanup team. They learned that coal ash regulation is going to be complicated, involving water quality, dam safety, disposal and re-using the material, with state and federal oversight. Some deadlines required by the new law will probably not be met.
Duke Energy, which owns all the sites, is making plans to move the 5 million tons of ash that has to be excavated from the four high-priority sites in five years. The company wants to transport ash from the Riverbend plant near Charlotte and the Sutton plant near Wilmington into two open-pit clay mines in Harnett and Lee counties. It will move Dan River plant ash to a landfill in Virginia, and the utility is considering building a lined landfill at the Eden site.
But hauling truckloads of the material around the state presents its own problems, and Duke Energy will argue to keep its costs as low as possible by keeping most of the ash where it is now.
"I have a serious concern about running millions of tons of coal ash through the back roads of North Carolina," said Michael Jacobs, chairman of the new Coal Ash Management Commission, which will eventually rank the 10 sites for cleanup and closure.
Jacobs said he doesn't anticipate beginning the task of ranking the sites for another year.
There is also more coal ash than previously disclosed, commissioners learned. Reeder said 108 million tons of ash is stored in ponds, but an additional 43 million tons stored outside of the ponds also will have to be covered or moved to lined landfills.
Simply covering the ash won't prevent water exposed to coal ash from spreading into the earthen basins. All of the 14 plant sites have groundwater contamination, although not necessarily at unsafe levels.
This week or next, the state will begin sending postcards to the owners of wells within 1,000 feet of each basin's compliance boundary offering to have them tested. (A compliance boundary is the sphere around each basin where higher contamination levels must be contained.) If the owners consent, 335 wells would be tested, 15 of which are part of public water systems. Some are in or near residential subdivisions.
Duke Energy was also required to identify all the wells within 2,640 feet of each basin's compliance boundary, and it came up with 482 more wells. Some of those will be tested for a wide range of indicators of the presence of coal ash.
The utility and regulators have been working through plans to determine the extent of horizontal and vertical contamination that has moved beyond the compliance boundaries. Duke has until the end of the year to submit those plans.