Approaching two years after the coal ash spill in the Dan River, state environmental regulators are deciding how soon each of the 32 basins where coal ash is stored in North Carolina must be cleaned up.
The calculus involves determining how structurally sound the leaking coal ash ponds are, and to what extent they might have polluted nearby ground and surface water.
The process of coming up with a final plan has been testy between the state Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy, which owns the sites. It also has been contentious between the state and environmental advocates, who want the state to force the utility to excavate most of the sites and move the ash to safe, dry, lined storage.
On Wednesday, the Environmental Review Commission, made up of state legislators, will hear an update on the plan to classify the sites according to risk.
The final result will cost Duke Energy, and probably its ratepayers, a lot of money. State environmental regulators estimate it could cost up to $10 billion if all the basins that are classified as high or intermediate risk are excavated.
The state is still sorting out which basins must be excavated and which can be left in place with less-costly measures that still protect the environment, such as draining and capping them.
DEQ in March will hold public hearings in every one of the 14 counties where a power plant stores coal ash. The dates and locations for those hearings were released Friday. The Cape Fear Power Station in Chatham County has five basins classified as intermediate risk.
Coal commission suspended
After public comments are compiled, a final proposed report will be submitted to the Coal Ash Management Commission – an entity that has been suspended pending the outcome of a lawsuit over whether the governor or the legislature has the authority to appoint its members.
Even if the commission remains inactive, the law provides a way for the classifications to go into effect. If it fails to act on the report within 60 days, the report is deemed approved.
When DEQ released its draft classification proposal last month, the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing several advocacy groups, claimed the process had been politicized. The center had obtained an earlier draft of the plan that emerged in legal proceedings; it listed all but one pond as high or intermediate risk.
The released report listed only 20 as high or intermediate. But DEQ said Duke Energy hadn’t provided enough information to determine whether another eight sites should be low or intermediate.
A 2014 state law identified four sites for immediate excavation and removal. The DEQ report didn’t identify any additional high-risk sites, which prompted the environmental lawyers to accuse high-level state officials of watering down their proposal.
While its own professional staff was able to determine the risk of these dangerous sites and concluded that almost all of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites pose a high risk to North Carolina’s communities, DEQ determined that none are high risk contrary to science and common sense.
Frank Holleman, SELC lawyer
“While its own professional staff was able to determine the risk of these dangerous sites and concluded that almost all of Duke Energy’s coal ash sites pose a high risk to North Carolina’s communities, DEQ determined that none are high risk contrary to science and common sense,” SELC attorney Frank Holleman said in a statement when the report was released.
The agency said its report was based on science.
“I am disappointed that the special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data,” department Secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement.
I am disappointed that the special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data.
DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart
Three criteria for safety
The report says the rankings were based on three criteria: how structurally sound the ponds are, what impact they have on surface water, and their impact on ground water.
Structural integrity – After the Dan River spill, the agency inspected the coal ash basins and told Duke Energy to do the same, including using video equipment. The state issued some notices of deficiencies, took into account new federal regulations and new state law, and determined that none of the 32 ponds would be high- or intermediate-risk based on structure alone.
Surface waters – The agency looked at the landscape, 100-year flood plains, proximity to water supplies and other criteria, and determined the state’s protections matched recent federal requirements.
Groundwater – Intense focus was placed on groundwater, according to the report, as all 14 sites have exceeded contamination standards. Regulators wanted to take a careful look at the potential threat to public or private drinking water supplies.
Part of the challenge is determining whether the contaminants are naturally occurring and not the result of leaks, and are already in drinking water sources around the state. DEQ says the law requires the utility to meet “aggressive deadlines” to test and report on groundwater contamination and the extent of naturally occurring contamination, and to submit plans for stopping it.
But Duke Energy didn’t provide that data by early December, as required, which is why regulators couldn’t classify some of the basins, according to the report.
The utility says it has been accumulating the most comprehensive coal ash studies ever done in North Carolina and is fully engaged in excavating the four high-risk sites: the Asheville Steam Station, Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County, Sutton Energy Complex in New Hanover County, and the Dan River Station in Rockingham County.
Duke Energy has said it plans to excavate 24 of the ponds.
The coal ash at sites designated as high-risk must be excavated and safely stored by Dec. 31, 2019. Intermediate sites must be excavated and stored safely by Dec. 31, 2024. Low-risk ponds must be safely stored by Dec. 31, 2029.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis
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The hearing for the only coal ash site in the Triangle, the Cape Fear Power Station in Chatham County, will be at 6 p.m. March 10 at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.