Coal ash stored in Chatham County needs closer monitoring, says new report

The entrance to Brickhaven Mine near Moncure.
The entrance to Brickhaven Mine near Moncure.

A study commissioned by environmentalists contends the state-approved plan for monitoring the safety of a coal ash repository in Chatham County is unlikely to detect groundwater contamination.

The study by a hydrogeologic and engineering consulting firm also found that an increase in groundwater contaminants there, including arsenic, cobalt, lead, copper and zinc, could be related to coal ash.

The environmentalists' report also claims that the original study paid for by Duke Energy mischaracterized groundwater flow patterns, saying its findings were "incorrect, meaningless, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of groundwater flow" — notably, that water would have to flow uphill for the previous study's findings to be accurate.

Charah Inc., the company that Duke Energy hired to develop lined landfills for coal ash deposits at the Brickhaven mine in Chatham County and the Colon mine in Lee County, defended its work on Monday. Charah says it uses the latest technology, materials and practices to protect the environment and public safety.

"Charah monitors and reports all activities associated with the structural fill operations at Brickhaven as required by state regulations and permit conditions," Scott Sewell, chief operating officer, said in a statement. "Charah will continue the safe and environmentally responsible operation of Brickhaven structural fill through project completion."

Therese Vick, researcher for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which is one of the plaintiffs in a related lawsuit over the sites, called on the state Department of Environmental Quality to halt coal ash shipments to both plants until the issues raised in the report can be investigated.

“Questions and concerns were raised regarding the inadequacy of the monitoring plan, and the complexity of the geology in Chatham and Lee counties during the permitting process," Vick said in a statement. "They were ignored. Duke Energy needed a place to dump their coal ash, and the DEQ saw to it that they got one."

The state Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment on the study because of the pending litigation. Duke Energy referred questions to Charah, which has hired the legal and public affairs firm Moore & Van Allen.

Both sites are former open-pit clay mines. Brickhaven, six miles south of Moncure, has been receiving coal ash since 2015. Colon, also a former clay mine five miles southeast of Sanford, has not begun accepting coal ash yet.

Brickhaven is expected to receive up to 12 million tons of coal ash, which has been transported from Duke Energy's coal-powered plants west of Charlotte and Wilmington.

The power company has closed seven of its 14 plants where coal ash is stored in basins, and has committed to closing all of the basins. It proposes to excavate 22 basins and leave in place and cap the remaining nine basins.

It has also been providing drinking water for people with private wells near the plants. The state began regulating coal ash more aggressively after a pipe burst under a stormwater pond in 2014 and spewed 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in Eden.

Duke hired Charah to conduct a study as part of the state permitting process for allowing coal ash be stored in the excavated clay mines. The Kentucky-based Charah is one of the largest coal ash management companies in the country.

The state Department of Environmental Quality reviewed the report and issued two permits each for the two sites in 2015, which was challenged in court by three environmental groups.

An administrative law judge dismissed the environmentalists' petition opposing the four permits the state issued. But a Superior Court judge disagreed and revoked two of the four permits, which prevented Duke from storing coal ash in sites not yet mined or excavated.

In April, the state appeals court found procedural errors by both of the previous judges and sent the case back to the Office of Administrative Hearings to hold a more complete hearing.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League became concerned with the annual sampling tests results that had been submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality, Vick said.

So the organization hired Groundwater Management Associates, a small firm based in Greenville, N.C., to review the Charah report. They said better monitoring of groundwater and surface water was needed to determine if higher levels of boron and other contaminants were cause for concern or if they occurred naturally. It recommended installing additional monitoring wells, among other steps.

Vick said her organization was still considering how the new study fits in to its future legal options.

The other groups involved in the case are EnvironmentaLEE and Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump.