Residents of southern Chatham County have breathed air free from coal power plant emissions since 2012, but some fear the emissions are coming back.
Duke Energy soon will build a plant to process coal ash near Moncure. The new plant will burn the coal ash again so it can be recycled into cement and concrete.
Representatives from Duke Energy held a neighborhood meeting Thursday night at the Chatham County Agriculture and Convention Center to explain the process and answer questions.
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Resident John Wagner was skeptical, saying he was concerned about how much air pollution the recycling plant would create.
“I found the presentation to be inadequate,” he said. “This so-called recycling is the only method they explored. There are other ways to do it without burning it again.”
Bobby Smith of Duke Energy said the company is complying with the 2016 state law, HB 630, that requires removing coal ash from pits at three of the company’s power plant sites by 2029. Duke Energy has hired SEFA Group of South Carolina to build processing plants near Salisbury and Goldsboro, too.
Coal ash pollution became an issue for Duke Energy when a 2014 spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden, near the Virginia border, polluted the river there. The company, which pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, paid $102 million in fines and restitution. Coal ash is not designated as a hazardous waste by EPA, but the basins are subject to state rules protecting groundwater.
The Cape Fear Plant in Moncure, which opened in 1923, once produced much of central North Carolina’s electricity. It closed in 2012. During its nearly 90 years of operation, the plant also produced vast amounts of coal ash, the waste product from burning coal to produce power.
It contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. When the plant finally was demolished in 2017, five pits containing almost 6 million tons of coal ash remained. Duke Energy has about 110 million tons of coal ash in storage at various sites around the state. Cleaning up the ash pits will cost about $5 billion, according to various estimates.
Duke Energy expects to process about 400,000 tons of coal ash a year in Moncure, from which it expects to yield about 300,000 tons of final product. The company is still seeking the required state air quality permits from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Part of the process includes public hearings by DEQ. When the processing plants open in 2020, they’ll operate under the same standards set out in Title V of the federal Clean Air Act, Smith said.
Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hales said she wished Duke Energy could offer more environmental protections.
“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do,” Hales said. “But it doesn’t go far enough. There are still many unknown risks about what they’re going to do.”