LAKE WYLIE -- Although many area residents may not even know what coal ash is, Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman says it could be devastating to the Catawba River.
"The safety and prosperity of millions throughout the Carolinas depend on the Catawba," Merryman said. "We have no option but to make sure it is fully protected from this hazardous waste."
Merryman responded last week after the Environmental Protection Agency listed 10 Duke Energy facilities among 44 "high hazard potential" coal ash waste impoundments nationwide based on "the potential consequences of failure or misoperation of the dam." The Duke Energy facilities in North Carolina include one at Allen Steam Plant in Belmont and two at Riverbend in Mount Holly. In total, 427 reported facilities manage the waste.
"The presence of liquid coal ash impoundments near our homes, schools and business could pose a serious risk to life and property in the event of an impoundment rupture," EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. "By compiling a list of these facilities, EPA will be better able to identify and reduce potential risks by working with states and local emergency responders."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
According to epa.gov, "a high hazard potential rating indicates a failure will probably cause loss of human life. The rating is not an indication of the structural integrity of the unit or the possibility that a failure will occur; it merely allows dam safety and other officials to determine where significant damage or loss of life may occur if there is a structural failure of the unit."
According to the EPA, coal ash is the more common name for coal combustion residues, which "consist of fly ash, bottom ash, coal slag and flue gas desulferization residue" and are caused by coal burning plants. The substance contains a "broad range of metals," including arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead and mercury.
With the potentially fatal results of coal ash entering water sources and being ingested, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has "procedures in place" to deal with such an emergency, said Erin Culbert, environmental outreach coordinator. However, she declined to elaborate about those procedures citing security reasons.
The two Riverbend sites north of Mountain Island Lake serve about 750,000 people in Charlotte, Belmont, Gastonia and other North Carolina municipalities.
"[CMU] has invested in storage, monitoring, redundant facilities and a water shortage response plan," Culbert said.
All three Catawba River sites are north of the Rock Hill intake, which provides water to 35,000 Rock Hill customers, along with York County, Lake Wylie, Tega Cay and Fort Mill. David Hughes, supervisor of York County Water and Sewer, said his group sells water to Carolina Water Service for Lake Wylie and has no specific contingency plans.
"We rely on our emergency management operations command," Hughes said. "Since we purchase our water directly from Rock Hill, we depend on other people to help us."
Scott Turner, water/sewer supervisor for Rock Hill, said his group does have plans for such water contamination.
"We do have contingency plans," he said. "Maybe not for coal ash but for Lake Wylie, for the nuclear station, for the bridge if a tanker were to overturn and something were to get in the water. Every utility has a contingency plan for those types of situations."
Hughes understands the devastation such a contamination could cause. Last year, a coal ash pond in Tennessee released 525 million gallons into local waterways when an earthen dam failed, destroying three homes and damaging 23 more while devastating fish populations in the Tennessee River. That incident led to the EPA to examine other sites.
"That could be a real muddy mess," he said, adding he plans to bring up the EPA findings at the next staff meeting.
Merryman, however, is not sold on contingency plans.
"Duke Energy and the federal government can't hide the fact that hazardous coal ash waste lurks directly adjacent to the Catawba River, the primary drinking water supply for our entire region," Merryman said. "We deserve appropriate action and conclusive assurance that hazardous coal ash waste does not place the safety of nearly 2 million people's drinking water at direct, immediate risk."
According to Duke, the threat of the three coal ash basins is overplayed.
"Our coal ash dams are safe," said Jason Walls, Duke spokesman. "We're confident that the monitoring, maintenance and inspection processes that go back for decades are in place to safely protect the public and the environment."
Walls said the classification has nothing to do with the "structural integrity" of the facilities. Also, he said, the issue is not a new, secret threat. Annual inspections and independent engineer inspections every five years have been public record since the mid-1980s.
But Merryman says the release of coal ash waste into the Catawba could "cause a catastrophe far greater in magnitude" than the Tennessee incident because of the large population here.
"A spill of coal ash from any one of the three Duke coal plants along the Catawba could compromise the river for months, if not years," he said.