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Is coal ash from unlined storage basins an urgent threat to public health that requires prompt removal of the material at each site? Or does scientific evaluation show that some basins pose less hazard, so that costly excavation isn’t the wisest option?
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality faces these questions, as well as substantial political pressure, as it works this spring to craft a policy for Duke Energy’s coal ash basins across the state, including two in Western North Carolina in Buncombe and Rutherford counties.
The war of words over what science does or doesn’t show heated up Tuesday as the Southern Environmental Law Center issued comments to DEQ calling into question many of the company’s assertions. Duke issued a response that for its part critiqued the SELC and called the organization’s objectivity into question.
Carolina Public Press talked to both sides about the issue Wednesday, with a focus on those WNC sites.
On the science
“Duke Energy claimed it would rely on science in making its recommendations, but instead it has submitted reports that are junk science,” said Frank Holleman, SELC senior attorney, in a statement the organization released Tuesday.
“They artificially exclude neighborhoods, create false boundaries around coal ash lagoons that exclude the impact of groundwater contamination, and assume that coal ash does not add contaminants to groundwater.
“In other words, Duke Energy has rigged its models to try to justify leaving coal ash in unlined pits next to our waterways. DEQ should reject this phony analysis and instead protect all communities and all drinking water supplies by recognizing the high risk of letting Duke Energy leave its coal ash mess in our groundwater and beside our rivers.”
Duke took issue with this criticism of its experts and defended the company’s methods.
“The data we submitted to regulators were the result of rigorous study and analysis by highly qualified and highly respected scientists and engineers across the nation,” Duke spokesperson Catherine Hope Butler told CPP in an email Wednesday.
D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney with SELC’s Asheville office, talked with CPP by phone on Wednesday about the questions the organization has raised in relation to the two WNC locations.
The Buncombe County site is in some ways less disputed than many others across the state. The state has rated the site as high risk because the dam holding up the basin overlooks Interstate 26 and the French Broad River.
“It the dam fails, people will die,” Gerken said.
Duke has been working to remove ash from the South Asheville site and place it elsewhere. Some has been recycled for use at the airport. Some has been trucked to other locations with lined basins, which are not as susceptible to leaching into the soil and groundwater.
Duke’s coal-fired power facility on Asheville’s Lake Julian is due to retire in a few years and be replaced by natural gas units, bringing an end to the production of coal ash locally.
But Duke’s liability for what’s already happened at the site remains an open question. Residents with wells living in the area have told CPP that their neighborhoods have high rates of cancer and other illnesses. While that’s difficult to confirm statistically, it raises questions.
Following a scare over coal ash when a Duke’s Dan River basin was breached due to a stormwater pipe break in 2014, the state took steps to reassure the public. One measure was to test wells near basins and warn owners with elevated levels of toxins not to drink the water.
But Duke accurately protested that the state was imposing maximum levels for some contaminants that made little sense and were well in excess of federal standards. Some of these substances occur naturally and can be found in municipal water supplies at levels higher than the state was allowing in wells.
In March, the state rescinded most of the “do not drink” orders, primarily due to two contaminants, vanadium and hexavalent chromium. But residents responded with confusion and fear. Rescinding a “do not drink” is hardly the same as issuing a “safe to drink up” order.
And at wells in South Buncombe, the order stayed in place, as has a requirement for Duke to provide residents with drinking water. That’s because other substances are elevated there. One is iron, which is naturally occurring and important for human life, but nevertheless dangerous at excessive levels.
Gerken noted to CPP that one of the other substances in question is thallium. That’s important, he said, because it’s not a commonly occurring substance in the area. Gerken said he thinks this makes it highly likely that the source of thallium is the nearby coal-ash basin.
At many sites, Duke has disputed whether contaminants found in wells are coming from its basins. That’s a key issue at its facility in Rutherford and Cleveland counties in the Cliffside community.
The state has designated that site as low to medium risk. SELC and other environmental organizations, as well as many area residents, disagree with this assessment for multiple reasons, including that it essentially creates a special category that doesn’t apply anywhere else.
Another major reason for their objections is how Duke evaluated the flow of groundwater there, an issue with Gerken said also applies at several other sites.
Duke has pointed to general scientific studies that say groundwater normally flows according to gravity, which means it shouldn’t flow uphill any more than surface water does.
But Gerken said Duke has developed its models to ignore the very real possibility of exceptions to this rule and to look at too narrowly drawn areas without regard to what’s happening outside of these isolated models.
Because of the fractured bedrock underlying WNC, the flow of groundwater can be less predictable, Gerken said. Pressure from pumping or other processes can also produce a flow that runs contrary to the lay of the land. Variation in well depth also makes prediction based merely on surface altitude problematic.
Duke’s flow models involve the creation of sometimes arbitrary geographical boundaries around the area to be evaluated, Gerkin said, noting that he thinks these are sometimes too close to the ash basin. This means that Duke only evaluates what’s happening within the rectangle covered by its model, not what’s occurring just on the other side where people may have wells, he explained.
This is what SELC means when it critiques Duke’s models as “rigged.” It’s not that Duke’s scientists’ evaluation of what’s happening within these models is wrong, Gerken said, but the deliberate choice to exclude data from surrounding areas without good reason.
According to the model for Cliffside, the flow of groundwater is only toward the French Broad River, Gerken said. But he said SELC’s experts took a closer look at Duke’s data and found that groundwater could be flowing toward the boundaries Duke has set up. It’s supposedly not flowing out of them, where it might endanger nearby wells, but that’s only because the model doesn’t allow any consideration of that possibility.
Some residents near the Cliffside facility have told CPP that they also believe illnesses in the area, and difficulty getting plants to grow in some places, is directly related to contamination of the groundwater.
Despite questions about Duke’s models for groundwater flow, the company isn’t backing away from its findings.
“We stand by that work and will continue to review new information as it becomes available,” Butler told CPP.
“Sound policy decisions should be made based on facts. Instead, SELC continues to advocate for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which is the most time consuming, expensive and disruptive option, with little or no measurable environmental benefit.”
Butler said the company wants the state to categorize several sites as low in risk, which would give the company more options. Even at some sites already rated as low, Duke has recommended excavation, so trying to avoid that step isn’t the issue.
“A low classification would allow time to evaluate and implement ash recycling technology that otherwise would not be feasible,” Butler said.
“We are always looking for new ways to recycle ash from the ash basins at our sites. With additional time, we have more opportunities to permit, install and begin operating specific reprocessing technologies that will allow the coal ash from our basins to be more suitable for use in concrete products. The additional time also will ensure these are prudent investments for our customers.”
Asked by CPP about the accusation that SELC and other environmental advocates embrace excavation as the only solution, Holleman disputed the way the company is framing the issue.
“Duke Energy wants to get a free pass on some of its sites,” Holleman wrote.
“Because it has stored so much coal ash in so many places and so irresponsibly, it believes it should be allowed to excavate some ash but leave other ash in place where it will continue to pollute.
Holleman also pointed to the very different policy environment in neighboring South Carolina.
“In contrast, in South Carolina, every unlined utility-owned coal ash pit is being excavated to dry, lined storage,” he wrote.
“If every community and river in South Carolina deserves this protection, so do the communities and rivers of North Carolina.”