Coal ash ponds and basins at Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Duke Energy graphic. Click to view full-size image.

The phase-out of wet coal ash basins at Duke Energy’s Asheville power station has kicked into high gear now that the company has submitted detailed plans and a new state oversight commission charged with reviewing proposals has begun work.

With the clock ticking on a Aug. 1, 2019, deadline for safer storage of coal ash, Duke Energy officials recently announced ash-removal and excavation plans for four sites identified as top priorities by the company and state regulators.

In the first phase of the plan, the company will use rail lines to ship about half of the remaining coal ash at the former Dan River power plant in Eden — the site of a February 2014 spill that highlighted the risks of ash ponds — to a new landfill in Jetersburg, Va. Another 2 million tons of ash from its Sutton Lake plant in New Hanover County and 1 million tons from its Riverbend facility in Gaston County will be sent by rail to lined landfills at clay mines near Sanford and Moncure.

In Asheville, Duke plans to continue, and potentially expand, use of the ash for taxiway construction at Asheville Regional Airport. In the first phase of the plans for the Asheville plant, an estimated 900,000 tons of ash will be trucked to the airport over an 11-month period once the permits are in hand.

The full plan for the Asheville plant and its two coal ash ponds calls first for the complete excavation and shipment to the airport of the remaining ash in the newer of the ponds, which was built in 1982. Excavation work then would start on the older of the basins, built in 1964. Some of that will also go to the airport as the 1982 basin is converted into a lined landfill. Once the airport project is completed, between 550,000 and 2.25 million tons of ash is expected to be moved to the new landfill at the plant.

MORE: NC environmental committee to meet on rules for reusing coal ash

Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, said the significance of the plan is that all of the ash at the plant will be moved from unlined basins to lined locations.

“We’re generally pleased with what they are proposing,” she told Carolina Public Press, adding that the alliance, which has backed moving ash to the airport, will still want to study the details in the engineering plan.

The other significant part of the plan, Mayfield said, is that, as required under the new coal ash law, the plant is converting to dry ash. That means that after the existing ash is dewatered and moved to the lined landfill, all of the ash waste stored at the plant will be dry and in a lined landfill.

Mayfield said that should keep the ash from connecting with groundwater or making its way through the area’s tributaries into the French Broad River across I-26.

“Drying it out should address a lot of it,” she said. “The problem with coal ash is when it’s wet.”

Frank Holleman, one of the lead attorneys in coal ash litigation for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the proposal was a victory for those who have fought to get the ash cleaned up.

New commission meets

On the heels of Duke Energy’s announcement, the new oversight group created under coal ash legislation passed at the end of this year’s legislative session got down to business with a six-hour meeting in Chapel Hill.

The nine-member Coal Ash Management Commission is charged with reviewing closure plans at the 14 major coal ash sites in the state. Still shy one member after the resignation of one recent appointee, the commission was sworn into office during the Nov. 14 meeting.

coal ash commission
The first meeting of the state’s Coal Ash Management Commission, in Chapel Hill on Nov. 14. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

At the meeting, the commission reviewed Duke’s plans and were briefed by regulators with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on the state’s coal ash response.

Among the reports were indications that at least some of the sites, seeps and other leaks around the basins may be included in updated discharge permits.

Seeps and other leaks have been identified at many of the sites, including Asheville’s, where some of the seeps that are flowing into streams that flow from the plant to the French Broad have shown concentrations of heavy metals that are typical constituents of coal ash.

Water quality officials told the commission that the new discharge permits are being worked on for all 14 sites. The state reopened the permits earlier this year.

Jeff Poupart, a supervisor with DENR’s wastewater branch, said that in some cases it is difficult to determine whether seeps are naturally occurring groundwater or the result of leaks from the basins.

Holleman told CPP that the coal ash legislation gives state regulators the option of either stopping the seeps and other leaks or including them in the permit.

In effect, he said, the law gave the state the OK to grant Duke “amnesty.”

“The idea of permitting a wastewater treatment facility to leak is standing the whole principles of the Clean Water Act and permitting on its head,” he said.

Constitutional challenge

The meeting came not only with Duke’s announcement on removal plans but also the day after Gov. Pat McCrory announced a lawsuit challenging the appointment process for the commission, which has six seats appointed by the legislature and three by the governor’s office.

In his suit, the governor, who was joined in the action by former Govs. Jim Hunt and James Martin, says that the coal ash commission — and a new oil and gas commission appointed in a similar way — violates the state constitution’s separation of powers requirements.

While he called the dispute with the legislature “non-acrimonious,” McCrory said he is determined to pursue the challenge.

“I have too much respect for North Carolina’s constitution to allow the growing encroachment of the legislative branch into the responsibilities the people of North Carolina have vested in the executive branch,” the governor said in a statement released with the announcement of the suit.

At the meeting, commission chair Michael Jacobs acknowledged the suit and the governor’s objection but said that, for now, the group would move ahead under the state law passed earlier this year. The governor declined to veto that bill, but refused to sign it.

Learn more

Click here to read more from Carolina Public Press’s special report on Asheville coal ash.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email

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