Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Archive photograph by Micah Wilkins/Carolina Public Press

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Regulators wanted emergency plan after 2012 dike failure

ASHEVILLE — Under increasing pressure to evaluate the risk of coal ash containment facilities, the state of North Carolina’s environmental agency conducted inspections of Duke Energy’s two Asheville coal ash containment dams in March.

In February, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced it would be conducting a comprehensive inspection of coal ash containment facilities throughout the state to look at all aspects of the collection ponds and dam construction. Between Feb. 20 and March 1, state dam safety inspectors also conducted a visual inspection of the spillways surrounding the ash ponds at Duke’s Asheville plant. There are two — one built in 1964 and the other in 1982 — that contain coal ash waste from the facility.

Despite the additional oversight by regulators, environmentalists are still not convinced that regulators and Duke have demonstrated the potential risk and impact of a dam failure. Among their concerns is the power company’s refusal to provide updated emergency action plans that have been requested on numerous occasions by state regulators.

When regulators conducted their March 20 inspection of the 1964 dam, according to records obtained and reviewed by Carolina Public Press, they found no problems that require immediate attention. However, the dam has been given a “poor” rating by the EPA.

See below for the original documents related to the latest inspections.

According to Duke Energy’s website, the poor rating was due to the lack of original engineering design documents and the need for additional stability analyses. Minor maintenance deficiencies were documented, but no issues of immediate concern were identified. According to Duke Energy and EPA records, the rating is not a direct indicator of the structural integrity or soundness of the ash impoundment. Many of the maintenance items identified have been completed, according to EPA records. The remainder of the recommendations are currently being addressed by Duke Energy.

Seven days later, on March 27, inspectors of the 1982 pond dam found several conditions that must be monitored or addressed by Duke including an area at the toe of the dam that had been torn up by a vehicle, multiple mole hills on the downstream slope of the dam and wetness on the right abutment at the toe and near the toe drains.

The “notice of inspection” sent from the state environmental agency to Duke said that excessive wetness or seepage can cause a failure of the dam due to internal erosion and/or embankment sliding.

Jason Walls, Duke’s general manager for the Asheville area, said that dams are inherently designed to seep.

Amelia Burnette, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville, argues that Duke has glossed over structural problems at the Asheville plant.

Burnette said her concern stems from the failure of an internal dike after a heavy rain event at the Asheville plant in 2012. The dike divides one of the coal ash ponds. Burnett said that before the dam breach, “wetness” and “seepage” had been found at the impoundment by state inspectors. Duke Energy says that no coal ash waste was released into the French Broad River from the failure of the dike.

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Burnette said that based on records obtained by the SELC, state regulators asked for copies of daily, weekly and monthly inspections for the impoundment that experienced the failure. She said that Duke has withheld those, claiming they were trade secrets.

“The nature of these large, antiquated earthen impoundments that are in constant contact with water makes them prone to structural problems,” she said.  “Wetness and seepage are still issues. In light of the Dan River mishap assurances that structural problems at the Asheville plant and that everything is fine is little comfort.”

In fact, results of a recent water quality inspection of the coal ash containment system at Duke’s Asheville and Rutherford County coal ash plants have revealed the presence of thallium, a toxic metal associated with the coal burning process.

According to a DENR press release, at the Asheville Steam Electric Station, thallium was recently detected below national recommended water quality criteria for recreational waters in three water samples collected at discharge points and wetted areas. Thallium was not detected in 11 other samples collected in surface water closer to the French Broad River. A sample pulled directly from the coal ash waste stream showed a higher concentration of thallium.

According to the press release, this information and additional data collected at these sites will be used to develop an overall evaluation of the facilities and direct further actions by DENR and the EPA. As part of the ongoing investigation, DENR will make additional water quality testing results public as the results are processed.

Burnette believes those results confirm their primary concern and that action by DENR directed at Duke is long overdue.

“The point remains that these aging lagoons are prone to structural problems and are a threat to our waterways,” she said. “Based on what we’ve seen around the state, unfortunately these types of problems seem to be par for the course for decades-old earthen impoundments that have been used as wastewater treatment facilities for wet coal ash.”

One inspection report from the N.C. Department of Natural Resources obtained by Carolina Public Press contained further information about the coal ash dams. Click to view the full-size image.

Duke: Emergency action plans are confidential

Regulators said they will also request that Duke provide updated emergency action plans and maps for the facilities.

Emergency action plans — also known as EAPs — are developed to reduce the risk of loss of life and property if the dam fails. The plan includes an inundation map that identifies development in the area and assesses the potential physical damage caused by a dam failure. An EAP also lays out the plans and procedures for notifying the individuals, agencies and public officials that would mobilize resources to respond to an emergency.

However, DENR already requested the plans after the 2012 Asheville dike failure.

In a April 18, 2013, letter to Duke Energy regarding the 1964 impoundment, Steve McEvoy, the state’s chief dam engineer, said: “EAPs function as an essential, and in fact, a primary tool in protecting the public welfare during a darn emergency. Without an approved EAP, this function cannot be fulfilled. It is therefore requested that an EAP be submitted as soon as possible for review.”

The current EAPs on file with the state for the two Asheville dams are from November 2010.

An email from Duke Energy to DENR on May 10, 2013, said that submitting emergency action plans is not required by the state for dams in service prior to January 1, 2010. North Carolina is one of ten states that does not require EAPs for dams classified as high hazard.

Thomas Williams, a Duke spokesman told Carolina Public Press that “our practice is to keep all emergency plans related to all major critical energy infrastructure confidential.”

Duke has claimed that the information in the plans are considered to be a trade secret and making them public would be a possible security threat.

WRAL, in Raleigh, reported that DENR General Counsel Lacy Presnell wrote in a letter that EAPs are “sensitive public security information” and not public record. That judgment followed a request by Duke that DENR return inundation maps submitted as part of an EAP for Duke’s coal ash plant in Wayne County.

McEvoy said that the most recent EAPs for the Asheville facility submitted to the state were by Progress Energy, the previous owners of the dam. Those plans, however, may be sufficient.

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“I doubt things have dramatically changed,” McEvoy said.

However, he pointed out that it is the responsibility of the dam owner to know what the liability is downstream.

Jerry VeHaun, the Buncombe County Emergency Services director agreed.

“If they don’t have something that’s changed” at the facility then the current plans should be adequate, he said. VeHaun said that the last EAPs on file with the county for both dams are from February 2011.

However, some argue that there should be a balance between public safety and the public’s right to know.

“People need to understand what the plan is if something like the Dan River were to happen in, say, Asheville,” environmental activist Sandra Diaz, of Boone, told WRAL. A request by Diaz for EAPs at the Asheville plant was denied in May 2013.

“That greater public interest should definitely trump any small chance that a terrorist would look at it like it is a target,” she said.


Continuing investigative report

For more from Carolina Public Press, see “Asheville Coal Ash: Mounting Concerns”

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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