The North Carolina legislature is in the process of reconstituting the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission, which Gov. Pat McCrory abolished in March following a state Supreme Court decision that ruled it was unconstitutional for the legislature to create a commission that oversees an executive branch function and then empower itself to appoint a majority of the commissioners.
After running the commission for its original 15-month stint, we would like to share our observations with possible future commissioners as well as with lawmakers as they deliberate whether to support legislation to reincarnate a commission. The governor has promised a veto, but the House bill passed by a large enough majority to override.
Selecting the right staff is critical. The issues are too complex for unpaid commissioners to tackle part time. We were able to assemble a highly talented group with complimentary skill sets and diverse political views. We also sought out the leading private sector experts on coal ash and signed contracts with them to advise us on technical matters. We were committed to focusing on what was right for North Carolina and consulting with all stakeholders in the process. Our goal was to develop a framework for how to best manage the coal ash cleanup, looking at the problem from a strategic, holistic perspective.
We met with numerous environmental thought leaders, Duke’s coal ash team, regulators, academics and trade organizations. We attended national conferences on coal ash. We toured impoundments across North Carolina and observed an excavation project in another state.
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No one was focused on the single best option, which is to eliminate as much coal ash as possible by recycling it in products ranging from concrete to bowling balls where all the toxins are permanently encapsulated. In Florida, for example, Duke Energy recycles all its production coal ash, and local concrete suppliers still have to import coal ash from Italy to meet demand. But regulators in North Carolina have never created incentives for Duke to do anything other than dump the ash into earthen pits for 80 years.
While some vocal proponents and the Department of Environmental Quality think the best option is to dig up all 108 million tons and move it, we never received a single request from a community seeking to be home to excavated coal ash. Excavating it also means putting it somewhere. As the residents of Lee and Chatham counties will tell you, not everyone welcomes coal ash in their back yards.
5 million dump truck loads
While some impoundments certainly need to be excavated, there are countless logistical, cost and safety problems with excavating 100 percent of the ash, which DEQ’s recently announced categorizations will require. The neighbors living near the Asheville Airport (where coal ash has been used as the base material under a new runway) will tell you that having an incessant stream of dump trucks full of coal ash traversing their neighborhood presents a host of concerns. To move all North Carolina’s coal ash would require 5 million dump truck loads, and while much can be moved by train, the amount that must traverse the state is staggering.
Technical experts will tell you that digging up coal ash ponds that have been dormant for decades and overgrown with forests can potentially do more environmental damage than good. There are numerous techniques to block the flow of water from under coal ash ponds toward water sources, none of which is being considered. And other states use approaches to prevent water from flowing through existing ash ponds into groundwater, options that cannot be considered given DEQ’s categorizations.
The cost of digging up all the ash and moving it will ultimately be borne by every resident and business in North Carolina in the form of higher power bills. With estimated costs ranging up to $10 billion, power bills will increase noticeably. Some contend that Duke’s shareholders should bear this cost, but our look at the law and prior practices lead us to believe it will be hard for the N.C. Utilities Commission to force Duke to absorb all the costs that regulators have dictated it incur.
Those who have labeled the efforts of lawmakers to reconstitute the commission as an attempt to bail out Duke have it wrong. To the extent that there are more fiscally responsible solutions with comparable environmental efficacy, it is just common sense to choose the less expensive route.
If the commission still existed, we would have asked some obvious questions, like: Where is all the excavated ash going to go? And, if Duke hired every contractor and piece of equipment available, could it excavate every one of its impoundments safely by the imposed deadlines?
Perhaps our primary takeaway from our deep dive into coal ash is that this cleanup has been approached tactically and not strategically. Each impoundment and surrounding community have a unique set of circumstances and risks to be considered when assessing the most environmentally protective, safe and economic option for closure. Since we are the first state to pass comprehensive coal ash cleanup legislation, the whole world is literally looking to North Carolina as an example. If we are going to achieve a reputation for best practices in managing the second largest waste product in America (besides household garbage), we need a thoughtful, strategic approach.
We sincerely hope new commissioners, if they are ever appointed and empowered to act, are not simply a rubber stamp.
Michael Jacobs is the former chairman and Natalie Birdwell the former executive director of the North Carolina Coal Ash Management Commission.