Many voices have weighed in on how to close coal ash basins across North Carolina. Some were from residents at 14 public hearings on the proposed rankings for coal ash basins – rankings that will determine the options available to close the basins.
Duke Energy employees who work and live near each of the sites were at each public hearing and at a town hall recently held in Stokes County. We were there to listen to neighbors’ concerns and were moved by their stories.
But voices of special interests have been speaking out, too – voices that play on people’s fears, telling them that coal ash is toxic and that excavation is the only solution. They don’t offer scientific evidence for their claims because there is none. Well sampling and groundwater data – verified by independent experts – demonstrate that ash basins are not affecting neighbors’ drinking water. These special interests also don’t tell neighbors how a one-size-fits-all approach of excavation will affect their lives or businesses throughout the state.
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It’s unfortunate those special interests aren’t accountable for providing data and evidence on such a serious issue. Deciding how to best close ash basins and protect people should be based on facts rather than anecdotes and spurious allegations not supported by scientific data. Closing an ash basin by removing the water from the ash and installing a protective cap is, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, equally protective of human health and the environment. Experience at numerous other ash basins across the U.S. shows that, once an ash basin is dewatered and covered with an impermeable liner, groundwater is protected. Because each ash basin is different, there are some site-specific engineering reasons where it may make sense to excavate a basin.
It is important for residents to understand the scale of what full excavation at every site would mean.
Across North Carolina, we have basins that hold 110 million tons of ash, which are the byproduct of serving customers with affordable, reliable electricity for decades. That’s enough to fill 55 Bank of America Stadiums. At one of the larger ash basins at Marshall Station, it would take more than 800,000 truck trips to move all the material in the ash basin. If there’s not enough on-site disposal space, imagine 100 trucks per day rumbling past your neighborhood for 20 or more years. Now multiply that by the transport of ash in 32 basins at 14 sites across the state.
Excavation at all sites also increases costs dramatically – and that affects businesses and energy customers across the state. Where basins are operating safely, excavation is far more costly with no appreciable environmental benefit.
Special interests want the ash moved – but they don’t say where it should go. They have the luxury of not having to offer real solutions and can just continue to rely on rhetoric and allegations. Because not all of our plants have space for a new landfill, new disposal sites would need to be located and constructed, requiring land to be cleared and even more truck traffic.
When the total environmental effects of excavating ash are assessed, particularly at large facilities, excavation would produce greater air quality impacts due to transportation emissions and more emissions of greenhouse gases compared with closure in place. Plus, there is reduced short-term benefit to groundwater from excavation at larger sites, because it will take decades to close the ash basin.
Capping some basins in place accelerates how quickly we can complete the work, reducing the disruption to communities. Duke Energy considers these effects holistically, with guiding principles to close coal ash basins in ways that put safety first, protect the environment, minimize effects to communities and manage costs. Unlike the special interests, our focus is on finding solutions that protect the environment and all residents.
David Fountain is president of Duke Energy North Carolina.