For years Duke Energy had enlisted an army of lawyers to resist cleaning up its coal ash dump sites where arsenic and other toxic waste is leaching into groundwater around the state.
Now, as it faces cleanup deadlines imposed by the state legislature, the Charlotte electric utility company is impatient to start trucking the ash to designated landfills in Chatham and Lee counties.
The proposed landfills have generated a firestorm of protest, but it’s not coming from Duke. Rather, the resistance this time is coming from the local communities that will have to host the ash dumps. Activists there fear plummeting property values and environmental risks associated with storing Duke’s toxic coal ash in perpetuity.
The fight over using two landfills to store up to 20 million tons of ash will be the focus of two public hearings this week on state permit applications for the landfills. The first public comment session, set for Monday evening at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center in Sanford, will cover the potential effects of coal ash storage on nearby streams and wetlands.
The ash is so voluminous it could take a caravan of rail cars and dump trucks more than five years to transport the incinerated waste to the landfills from Duke power plants.
Lee County officials originally opposed the landfill but have since agreed not to challenge the permit application in exchange for a $12 million payment from Duke. Chatham County officials are still holding out; they have passed a resolution opposing the landfill and are holding their own meeting Monday morning to assess strategy.
Opponents have held organizational meetings and prayer vigils, and they have flooded the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with written comments that anticipate the emotional tenor of the upcoming Monday hearing.
“This much coal ash from those hundreds of trucks and train cars over the years to come will, in effect, be like a genocide,” wrote Judy Hogan of Moncure in one of the more strongly worded appeals. “It is toxic, it does harm and sickens human beings.”
Last year the state legislature placed four Duke coal ash sites on a high-priority list for excavation and landfill storage, and the Chatham and Lee landfills are in the first phase of the cleanup. The legislature also created the Coal Ash Management Commission to prioritize Duke’s remaining ash sites for safe ash storage, either by shipping the waste to landfills or by draining the ash of water and storing it in dry form where it is.
Storage in landfills will be subject to modern safety standards, including impermeable liners, leachate monitoring and groundwater analysis. But opponents say the high-density polyethylene liners will not last forever, dismissing Duke’s assertion that the protective barriers could last several centuries.
Opponents say once the ash is moved to the landfills, the groundwater contamination problems now bedeviling Duke will start all over gain.
They want Duke to quarantine the ash – and associated legal and health risks – on its own property. “It should be kept right there where they are as their liability,” said Therese Vick, an activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
Still, the local landfill opponents – a coalition including Clean Water for North Carolina, Haw River Assembly, EnvironmentaLEE, Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump and NC WARN – are in a delicate position.
The landfills they condemn as inherently dangerous are the very solution urged by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the organization representing a dozen environmental groups in their four-year legal battle to clean up Duke’s ash pits. These groups are now on the cusp of victory, with last year’s state legislative action and a $25.1 million state fine levied last month, the first of many fines expected for Duke’s coal ash practices.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Cape Fear River Watch and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation won public recognition for the dangers of coal ash and don't oppose the Chatham and Lee landfill proposal. In their two-page comment to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, these groups are recommending additional groundwater monitoring but otherwise support using landfills.
“It has all the characteristics that we’ve advocated for storage of coal ash,” said SELC lawyer Frank Holleman III. “These sites satisfy these standards.”
In the first phase of the coal ash transfer, the two landfills would start off with 2.9 million tons of coal ash from the Sutton Plant in Wilmington and Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County, operated by Duke subsidiaries Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress (formerly called Progress Energy).
Holleman said that leaves plenty of room for about 5.7 million tons at the nearby Cape Fear Plant in Moncure, which has “the worst-rated dams of any sites in North Carolina.”
In all, Duke has accumulated more than 150 million tons of ash over the decades at 14 coal-burning power plant sites in North Carolina. The ash at the company’s four high priority sites has to be excavated by August 2019, under the state’s 2014 coal ash cleanup law.
“We’re very excited to begin moving coal ash as soon as possible once we have the necessary approvals and permits from the state,” said Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks. “If we don’t begin moving the material soon, it’s going to be very challenging for us to meet the tight deadlines in the legislation.”
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources will hold two public hearings this week on a plan to allow Duke Energy to move up to 20 million tons of coal ash to two landfills in Lee and Chatham counties. The projects require multiple environmental permits. The hearings will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., with sign-up for speakers beginning at 5 p.m.
▪ Monday, Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, 1801 Nash St., Sanford.
▪ Thursday, Chatham County Historic Courthouse, 9 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro.