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Coming up from Carolina Public Press: More on the legal battles over the coal ash deposits located throughout North Carolina – including those in Asheville – and further details about the dams holding coal ash there.
WNC legislators weighing in, calling for additional action
After a week of intense scrutiny that included the announcement of a federal probe and a lengthy hearing Monday at the North Carolina legislature, the future of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds — including ones in Asheville — remains as clear as the Dan River just east of Eden.
The latest news on the massive leak, which sent an estimated 40,000 tons of coal ash sludge into the river, revolves around new concerns about a second leak from a second pipe running under the ponds located at the former coal-fired power plant.
During Monday’s Environmental Review Commission meeting in Raleigh, Duke Energy and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials assured legislators that problems with the second pipe were not as serious.
After apologizing for the spill and vowing to do whatever it takes to clean up the damage to the Dan River, Duke Energy Director of Environmental and Legislative Affairs George Everett told legislators Monday that the company did not know that the main stormwater pipe running under the pond was not reinforced concrete but corrugated steel and asbestos, which is much more likely to fail over time.
Less than a day later, DENR ordered the company to quickly seal the second pipe, citing rising levels of heavy metals coming from the discharge.
Meanwhile, Gov. Pat McCory, speaking Tuesday at North Carolina A&T State University, seemed to contradict DENR’s position by saying that the coal ash waste should be moved, a requirement that the state environmental agency has yet to set while it pursues a settlement with the power company. The agency, instead, has studied capping the ponds.
The shift in the administration’s list of preferred options mirrors the direction of a growing number of legislators, including Senate Rules Committee chair Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who announced a legislative effort to address coal ash waste in the short session.
Apodaca told WRAL last week that he’s requested legislative staff to begin drafting language on cleaning up the ponds saying “just letting them sit there is not the answer to the problem.”
He also told The Charlotte Observer that the ash pond at Duke’s Asheville power plant “frightens the hell out of me, because if it breaks it would go across Interstate 26 and into the French Broad River.”
“It’s time to stop talking about containment and start talking about a solution,” he told The Observer. “It’s time to get rid of all of them as quickly as they can.”
In an interview with Carolina Public Press on Monday, McGrady said he told Apodaca he’d be willing to work on the House side to get legislation passed.
A member of the Environmental Review Commission, McGrady said he sees similarities between the current controversy and the state’s attempts to deal with hog lagoons after major spills led to legislation.
But McGrady, a former national president of the Sierra Club, cautioned that nothing’s on the table yet and that the details of the legislation will be critical in winning his support.
“I can’t speak for Senator Apodaca, but legislation that just provides for capping of ponds is not something I would support,” he told Carolina Public Press.
Coal ash ponds in Asheville under scrutiny
The controversy over coal ash ponds is not new in Western North Carolina. Environmental groups have spent years trying to get Duke to cleanup coal ash ponds covering roughly 91 acres at the Asheville Power Station near Arden on the French Broad River.
The two main ponds, the first of which was built in 1964, are rated as having a high hazard potential by the Environmental Protection Agency. Their 90-foot earthen dams hold back a slurry of roughly 1 million gallons of water and coal ash that are less than a few hundred yards from the river.
Duke Energy’s Carolinas division acquired the Asheville plant, which has been a target for environmental organizations both because of the waste ponds and the use of coal from mountaintop mining, when the company merged with Progress Energy last year.
For French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, worries about the ponds at the plant have heightened since a major spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority site sent 525 million gallons of coal ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers.
“It’s very similar to all the other plants,” Carson said of the Asheville facility. “You have unlined coal ash lagoons sitting next to a river.”
Carson said he and others have detailed extensive groundwater contamination from arsenic and other heavy metals that make up coal ash’s toxic signature.
Like other riverkeepers in the state, he said he has documented a number of seeps from the site flowing into the river as well as contamination in sediment and fish. He also shares the fear that, like in Eden and at the TVA site, the structures built decades ago to hold the slurry may one day give way.
After the Tennessee spill, the EPA began an inventory of the coal waste sites while environmental groups pressed the Obama administration to reverse the Bush administration’s relaxing of rules on coal waste storage. New EPA rules on coal ash are expected by the end of the year.
The waste ponds at the Asheville plant were flagged by the EPA in part because of the lack of documentation, something that might have seemed less serious were it not for how the spill at the Dan River came about.
Carson said there was an internal breach at the plant in 2012, which raised further concerns about the safety of the ponds.
The Dan River spill, he said, should be a warning that, after years of push back from the state and power company officials, delaying a fix for the other sites comes at a high cost.
“We’ve been warning them since the (TVA) spill that we could see a catastrophe here,” he said. “Now we’re waiting on them to do something about it.”
McGrady said he’s not aware of any “anomalies” at the Asheville sites like the pipes running under the Eden facility’s ponds, but, regardless, there’s ample reason to move forward.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out a way to move forward with some legislation,” he said.
But he cautioned that crafting a solution for all 14 sites in the state won’t be easy.
“There’s probably not a one-size-fits all solution here,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to deal with this on a site-by-site basis.”
Carolina Public Press has reported for more than a year about the coal ash ponds located at Duke Energy’s power plant in the Asheville area. To read that coverage, visit our special report section.