Duke Energy's Cliffside Steam Station, located in Rutherford County, is pictured here in an archive photo from 2011. Image courtesy of Duke Energy.

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The practice of storing coal ash in surface water impoundments appears headed for the ashbin of history at multiple sites across North Carolina, with the Department of Environmental Quality wrapping up a series of preliminary public information sessions to prepare for the closures.

However, how well the sessions have gone and what the public ought to expect depend on whom you ask.

State policymakers, the energy industry and advocates for the environment don’t always agree over the meaning of fairly simple terms. For instance, the word “close.”

Duke Energy has presented a range of closure options and recommendations for coal ash sites across the state, with DEQ officials expected to weigh both Duke’s ideas and feedback from the public in determining the best course.

But some of the options don’t actually mean that coal ash will be removed, a major sticking point for advocates like Amanda Strawderman, a program coordinator with Clean Water for North Carolina.

“Quoting DEQ’s own mission statement, communities have repeatedly reminded the government agency to protect them and shared their concerns over any closure option besides excavation,” Strawderman told Carolina Public Press in an email on Friday.

Duke Energy, which has historically operated coal-burning facilities across North Carolina, has long argued that full removal or “excavation” of coal ash may be the right option in some sites, but not in every case. For Duke, closure means that additional coal ash will not be added to a storage site. What else may happen at sites should vary with the situation there, according to Duke.

A key point of disagreement between the energy industry and environmental advocates is over the threat to public health posed by coal storage, especially in surface water impoundments.

“No neighbor drinking water supplies around our basins are affected now, nor would they be in the future under any of our closure models,” Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton told CPP in an email on Friday.

“Also, every closure option – whether capping, hybrid or excavation – begins by safely removing the free-standing basin water first. Removing the pressure created by that water will address groundwater concerns.”

Count Strawderman among those who disagree about the threat coal ash poses. She points to concerns members of the public have raised at several of the recent information sessions.

“Community concerns regarding leaving the coal ash in place have included: drinking water protection, health implications, ecological and environmental impacts, dam failure and inundation risks due to increasing possibility of historic rain events, as well as Duke Energy’s political influence,” Strawderman said.

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But Duke insists that these concerns are out of step with its own scientific findings.

“We’ve stressed all along that closure decisions should be driven by science and engineering, so we’re glad for the opportunity to provide these reports to the public,” Norton said. “All the closure plans will protect people and the environment – not just our preferred closure method, but any of the options we’ve presented. That’s the most critical point of all these reports.”

Norton also warned that if DEQ imposed an excavation-only model, it would drive up costs, which Duke expects to pass on to its customers.

“With that protection established for any basin closure method, what you consider next are the trade-offs between the options – in particular the cost to customers and length of community disruption,” Norton said.

“Regulators have determined basin closure is a customer expense, so we want to do this efficiently as well as safely.”

However, Strawderman warned that state officials could face a political cost if they give Duke what it wants.

“Given promises made by Gov. Roy Cooper during his campaign and the recent decisions from South Carolina and Virginia to fully remove coal ash, it remains to be seen if North Carolina will be a champion for the people or a pawn for the industry,” she said.

Information sessions

DEQ’s final information session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Stuart Cramer Elementary School in Belmont in Gaston County, just east of Charlotte.

Previous sessions have been in Stokes, Person, Rutherford and Catawba counties. At stake are Duke coal ash storage facilities in each of those communities. The environmental issues related to each facility could raise much broader concerns, however. For instance, the Sheriff’s Ford facility in eastern Catawba County is adjacent to Lake Norman, which provides drinking water to multiple counties in the state’s largest metropolitan area, around Charlotte.

As CPP has reported previously, the energy industry and its apologists sharply disagree with environmental advocates over the threat to public health posed by coal ash storage in surface water facilities, with both sides claiming science is in their side and public officials left to decide.

DEQ spokesperson Megan Thorpe described this series of meetings as the first steps in a long process.

“Though this is the last of the initial stakeholder information sessions, there is a long road ahead to determine the final closure plan,” Thorpe said.

“By year’s end, Duke will have to submit final closure proposals for the remaining coal ash impoundments, and DEQ will hold public comment periods and public meetings on each of those proposals before decisions on closure options are selected.

“So far, this initial public stakeholder engagement has brought a lot of people into the discussion, and their comments and feedback will be helpful as DEQ evaluates Duke’s closure proposals.”

However, Strawderman was critical of DEQ’s conduct of the meetings and the level of preparation from its staff.

“The original format of (these) meetings was divisive and did not allow the public to listen to each others’ concerns,” she said. “The format was also remarkably similar to previous Duke Energy-sponsored meetings.

“DEQ did change the format following public outcry, however transcribed notes from previous meetings lacked substance. There is uncertainty as to whether public concerns and demands will be taken into consideration outside of written comments submitted.

“During these meetings, DEQ officials have admitted to not reviewing important documents regarding specific site closures. DEQ has been unable to answer most questions brought up by community and at times there has been misinformation given.”

However, she expressed hope that the process could still move toward the result she wants to see, provided those who agree with her make themselves heard.

“We will continue to push for the public to submit written comments accepted until Feb. 15,” Strawderman said.

“DEQ is claiming to seek public opinion earlier in the process, therefore the draft closure proposal should reflect the overwhelming support for full excavation of every coal ash basin.”

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Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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