Under the Dome

Duke: Disposal of coal ash impossible if EPA declares it hazardous

As underlined by an environmental group last week, there are no clear answers about where the more than 100 million tons of Duke Energy coal ash is supposed to go to make it safe and secure.

The Sierra Club, the Catawba Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center say it should be hauled off to lined landfills. That’s what’s happening in South Carolina on a much smaller scale. But the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League says that’s a bad idea; instead, it should be contained in super-secure structures on the same property where it is now.

Duke Energy, in a recent court filing, elaborates on the dilemma: “There is no adequately sized lined landfill available to receive this quantity of ash at any Duke Energy facility or at pre-existing offsite landfills within North Carolina (or within a reasonable distance from North Carolina,” Duke attorney James Cooney III writes. “Locating, permitting and constructing any type of landfill in a community is a difficult, lengthy and uncertain process in the best of circumstances; locating a coal ash landfill could be even more difficult.”

Cooney notes in his brief that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will decide in December whether coal ash – which has not been regulated – should be classified as a hazardous waste or a solid waste.

“Should the EPA classify coal ash as a ‘hazardous waste,’ disposing of the coal ash in any existing landfill would be impossible and transporting coal ash would become practically impossible,” Cooney writes.

That means whatever happens to North Carolina’s 2,800 acres of coal ash depends on what the EPA does, he adds. Even if there were landfills to hold the material, and that coal ash could be transported without further lawsuits or EPA violations, it would take years if not decades to finish the job.

Duke has said it plans to move the ash from three of its 14 plants once it gets permits, accelerate closure of a fourth site, convert to dry ash at all remaining facilities, and start “dewatering” the remaining retired plant coal ash ponds.

Bottom line: Fixing a problem that has been developing over the past century isn’t going to be quick.

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