By Martha Quillin
Fifteen miles apart, in Lee and Chatham counties near the geographic center of the state, lie two giant holes in the earth in which Duke Energy Progress and its millions of electric customers might hope to bury their troubles.
Along with some of the surrounding terrain, these maws, created by decades of digging clay and shale for bricks, would be graded, lined with plastic and filled with coal ash residue that has to be moved to prevent the contamination of ground and surface waters elsewhere in the state. Excavating the material, moving it and encapsulating it in former open mines is a grand-scale experiment that could change the landscape of two North Carolina counties in more ways than one.
As the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources considers permit applications for the two projects that eventually could rise several stories from the red, clay soil, opposition is building, too. The boards of commissioners in both counties have adopted resolutions opposing the coal ash dumps, and residents are consulting with lawyers and environmentalists to see what actions they can take to stop or stall the plans.
Duke Energy Progress and Charah Inc., a Kentucky-based waste handler that will own and operate the fill sites, say they will use proven techniques and technologies to fix two problems at once. Moving the ash from unlined basins where it has accumulated for generations reduces its risk for contaminating surface and groundwater, and placing it in the former mining sites, where it will be capped and planted over, will turn scarred earth into land newly desirable for industrial development.
But opponents say not enough is known about how the coal ash will behave in this kind of long-term storage, and the risk that the fill sites might leak or otherwise fail will create a stigma for the two counties that could discourage future growth. While they would like to see the projects halted and environmental studies required, they say Lee and Chatham counties at least should be compensated for bearing the risk of a problem that belongs to everyone who has enjoyed the benefit of a century of low-cost, coal-generated power.
“This is a statewide problem,” Nick Wood, an organizer for NC Warn, a nonprofit energy-industry watchdog, told a group of people gathered at the volunteer fire department in Moncure on Thursday night to discuss strategy. “We need a statewide solution.”
Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said: “It’s a complex problem, and there is no easy solution.”
The law does not mention host fees, which are typically charged for tonnage at landfills, and in meetings, company officials said they did not intend to pay fees. When asked Friday about the possibility of compensating the counties, Brooks said, “We’re hoping to find ways to alleviate their concerns and make this a project that will benefit the communities as well as our customers.”
Brooks said Duke expects to pay up to $350 million for the first phase of coal ash removal from its first four sites. That includes what it will pay Charah to move ash to Lee and Chatham counties.
Major property purchases
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says ash is piled at decommissioned power plants across the country and that the U.S. generates about 140 millions tons of additional coal waste each year.
Coal ash contains substances such as arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and selenium. Exposure to high levels of some of these can increase the risk of cancer, neurological effects and other health problems.
Coal ash is often reused in other materials such as cement, composite wood, vinyl flooring, even bowling balls.
State legislators started considering the regulation of coal ash last year after a February spill at Duke’s Dan River Power Station near Eden sent 30,000 to 39,000 tons of ash up to 70 miles downstream. State and federal officials still are assessing that damage and preparing a report on how to mitigate it.