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Earlier this month, U.S. Senators introduced legislation that could change how coal ash byproduct from coal-burning power plants is regulated and recycled – legislation that could impact Western North Carolina and how coal ash produced by the Progress Energy Carolinas power plant in Skyland is handled.
Scrubbers in the plant’s tall smoke stacks catch the remnants of coal that’s burned to create energy. That byproduct is coal ash, which Progress Energy defines as the part of coal that remains after incineration in the boiler. Coal ash is caught, transported to a large containment in the back of the plant and “sluiced” with water to prevent it from blowing away.
These coal ash ponds have been a method of containment for decades and are now even more widely used after the scrubbers took the coal ash from the atmosphere and accumulated it within the plant. But the proposed federal legislation could completely redefine regulatory and design standards for storing and maintaining coal ash.
Concern about the storing of coal ash has stemmed from the chemical nature of the ash and the buildup of elements, or “constituents,” such as iron, chromium, aluminum, manganese, arsenic, sulfate and boron.
Scott Sutton, senior communications specialist with Progress Energy, attributed the make-up of the coal ash to the natural occurrence of these elements in coal.
“Because coal comes from the earth – it is earth that you’re burning – it is no surprise that it consists of virtually identical elements found in the rocks in the earth’s crust,” Sutton said. Within the coal itself, he said there are only trace quantities of these elements and that these are not on their own a concern to the environment.
Landon Davidson, regional Aquifer Protection Section supervisor of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Quality regional office in Asheville, said, “the issue is that when you burn coal and you’re left with the ash, you’re concentrating those trace elements (into a pond).”
But before Progress Energy will take action to change the way it stores and uses coal ash, the company needs to know exactly what the new regulations will involve, Sutton said. Because the classification of coal ash could be deemed as either hazardous or non-hazardous waste, the coal-powered industry is waiting to make any moves regarding a change in storage.
Sutton said Progress Energy supports increased federal regulation but hopes the EPA will not change the classification of coal ash to a hazardous waste because he said scientific studies have never supported that.
“The regulatory future of coal ash is quite murky,” he said. “And because of that, it makes it challenging to make hundreds-of -millions-of-dollar decisions without knowing the future. It’s not a matter of should we spend the money or should we protect public health and safety.”
Coal ash storage and reuse
The pending legislation is especially important for the Asheville plant because of its limited space for ash storage, Davidson said. The Asheville plant has two coal ash ponds: an inactive one built in 1964 but removed in 1982, and an active one employed since 1982. The ponds both have compacted earth dams on one side that are virtually contiguous, according to Sutton.
With a surface area of 46 acres and storage capacity of 1,400 acre-feet, the active ash pond can hold roughly 450 million gallons of wet ash. And although the pond has a seemingly large storage capacity, it still has its limits.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the pond has been there 20 years, it’s probably pretty full,” Sutton said. Because of the constant creation and accumulation of coal ash with each batch of coal, the plant has to find ways to reuse the coal ash to remove it from the ponds.
Separate coal combustion products, such as gypsum or the hollow cenospheres that float to the top of the coal ash ponds, are used in manufactured products from bowling balls to drywall to cosmetics, said Garry Whisnant, plant manager at Progress Energy’s Asheville plant.
But probably the largest employment of Asheville’s coal byproducts is the ongoing structural fill project at the Asheville Regional Airport. Charah Inc., the operating firm that Progress Energy employs to maintain and market its coal combustion products, has partnered with the airport to reuse the coal ash and level out the area around the airport’s campus.
The Westside Project is a structural fill project that uses coal ash in the ground to create a level surface for future airport development. Charah protects the soil from any release of the coal ash with multiple different liners and caps on the bottom and top of the filled area.
NCDENR’s Davidson said, “You’re completely encapsulating the ash in a plastic liner, essentially.”
Tina Kinsey, the airport’s director of marketing and public relations, said that raising the topography of the land adjacent to the airfield is part of the airport’s master plan.
Kinsey, Progress Energy employees and Charah representatives all described the airport’s structural fill project as a creative partnership that beneficially reuses coal ash. And NCDENR verified that the project meets EPA guidelines for proper coal ash reuse.
“We feel we’ve done everything we can do to make it as safe a project as possible,” Davidson said, adding that he thinks it is overall a good project. Sutton said the project is the solution many of the region’s environmentalists want: “If I was an environmental activist, I would be cheering this on, because this is the solution they have been advocating.”
Western North Carolina Alliance Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson agreed. “What they’re doing here is better than what would be happening if it were just sitting in the ponds,” he said. But Carson said the project does not solve the question of how to protect the environment from possible harmful effects of the coal ash in the future.
According to the airport and Progress Energy, there are no future plans for a similar project to reuse the ash. This project alone has removed 780,000 tons of coal ash from the plant, Sutton said. Once the project is completed, however, the coal ash will continue to build up and fill the ponds and cause concern among some environmentalists.
Specifically the dams that hold the ponds produce unease for activist groups. Based on a rating from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Progress Energy Asheville dams are rated “high hazard,” which means that should there be a break in the dams, there would be at least one loss of life and significant environmental impact.
The plant’s dams carry the high hazard rating based on its location in the mountains, the proximity to I-26 and the French Broad River and the presence of a large bridge downstream, Sutton said. This classification subjects Progress Energy to extensive regulation and maintenance procedures to ensure a breach in one of the dams would be highly unlikely.
Sutton said that they “maintain the dams not for routine daily operation but for worse-case flood scenarios where you might add a once every 100 years flood on top of the dams.” He said the rating is widely regarded as a classification based on the make-up of the ponds, but actually only specifically defines the dams.
There are more than 30 high hazard-rated dams in Buncombe County alone, according to NCDENR. “You can see why this is ripe for misunderstanding, ripe for sensationalism and ripe for people who want to grab onto a specific point of this and ring a bell,” Sutton said.
Both NCDENR and Progress Energy are conducting groundwater testing to determine whether there have been significant effects to groundwater surrounding the plant.
“We’re not at the point, and we don’t believe, that there’s been any impact on the water supply wells,” Davidson said. “(But) there’s possibility that there have been impacts to the groundwater.”
Sutton said that because the soil in the mountains already contains trace elements such as iron, calcium and silica, it is difficult to determine what the source is of the metals.
“A big part of the challenge is separating what might be naturally occurring in the soil around that particular ash pond versus what might be a direct impact from the ash pond,” he said.
According to Davidson, NCDENR’s six completed tests of the monitoring wells around the Progress Energy plant revealed excesses of certain constituents in three of the total nine wells. Boron, chloride, iron, manganese, selenium, sulfate and thallium were found in levels above the standard amounts for groundwater. However, Davidson said NCDENR requires further testing and processing to verify whether the high levels have come from the plant or are naturally occurring in the soil.
Exploring coal alternatives
With the end of the airport project in the future, the pressing of a pond full of concentrated trace elements of chemicals and metals and the possibility of groundwater contamination, the environmental community is working harder than ever to combat continual coal ash storage.
For Carson, the real solution to deciding what to do with coal ash is to stop creating it. “If you keep burning coal forever and ever you’re just going to keep producing this waste product that’s toxic,” he said. “And you’re going to keep having to deal with this problem and figure out what to do with it. So what we want to do is fix the immediate environmental and human health concerns and then eventually phase away from dirty coal.”
In terms of the coal ash ponds specifically, Carson said, “What we’re doing is trying to put as much pressure on the state and the EPA and Progress (Energy) as we can to make them clean up this big hole in the ground that’s full of heavy metals.”
The Western North Carolina Alliance is part of the newly launched Asheville Beyond Coal campaign that wants to convince Progress Energy to shut down its coal plant and transition completely to clean energy.
But according to Progress Energy employees and NCDENR officials, such a transition is not an easy or immediately viable one.
Martha Thompson, community relations coordinator with Progress Energy, said the company anticipates the day it can incorporate more alternative energy into its production, but right now, the technology simply doesn’t exist to do that.
The Asheville plant serves 164,000 customers, and one customer could be a single resident while another could be an entity like Mission Hospital. With that many people and places to provide electricity to, there is nothing other than coal available right now to satisfy the constant need for power, Thompson said.
“It would be very difficult to have an alternative fuel source that could replace the electricity required by this plant,” she said. “We’re not shutting this plant down anytime soon.”