Hearing drastic differences of opinions, the Lake Wylie Marine Commission did not take a stance this month on perhaps the most controversial environmental issue impacting the lake, one coming to a head Sept. 14.
On that date, the Environmental Protection Agency hosts a daylong public hearing about possible new regulations for coal ash, the residual byproduct of coal combustion. The Charlotte meeting is one of seven locations nationally to host such a meeting.
Three coal ash storage facilities operated by Duke Energy on or north of Lake Wylie sparked much debate in recent months, particularly between the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation wanting coal ash ponds shut down in fear of public safety and Duke, maintaining the facilities are safe.
“I understand the concern, and we’re all concerned,” said marine commission Chairman Smith “Smitty” Hanks at the group meeting Aug. 23, “but we want to deal with facts.”
The contentious coal ash debate, both sides agree, catapulted into a national controversy following the Dec. 22, 2008, spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of the material from the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, covering 300 acres outside the facility. According to the EPA, the discharge can “typically contain a broad range of metals, including arsenic, selenium and cadmium.”
That event “covered millions of cubic yards of land and river, displacing residents, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and damaging the environment,” according to information at epa.gov, as clean-up efforts continue. It also showed a “need for national management criteria.”
After the spill, the EPA began drawing more information from coal ash site managers, and in June 2009, listed 44 “high-hazard potential” sites in the country. A total of 10 Duke sites made the list, including two at Riverbend in Mount Holly, one at Allen Steam Plant in Belmont and one north of Lake Wylie at Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman.
The Riverkeeper Foundation says that proves Duke’s facilities pose a serious threat to public safety and should be closed. Duke, however, says the list only considers the potential impact of a failure, not the likelihood, and Duke’s facilities meet or exceed all safety standards.
The latest debate
Pat McCabe, addressing the marine commission for Duke Energy, said the next step in the coal ash debate is critical. The EPA currently has two options for how it will classify the material moving forward: to classify coal ash as non-hazardous waste, allowing sites to self-implement corrective actions and keep sites open with few restrictions; or reclassify the waste as hazardous material, requiring state and federal enforcement and phasing out the use of ash ponds.
For McCabe, the stricter classification would be an overreaction to the Tennessee incident.
“Nothing in the characteristics of ash has changed,” he said.
McCabe says the problem in Tennessee came from a dam failure. He says structural integrity is the issue the EPA needs to address. Marine commissioner Ron Wanless agreed.
“Earth-filled containments fail – earthquakes, storms, whatever,” Wanless said. “Nobody seems to be addressing the main issue.”
Yet C.D. Collins, member of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation at the marine commission meeting to update commissioners about the Oct. 2 Riversweep, said earthen impoundments are just part of the coal ash problem.
“He said some things that sort of bothered me,” Collins said of McCabe’s presentation. “It’s the same old things that have come up time and time again.”
Collins has a “slight fear” of Duke’s impoundments breaching as the one did in Tennessee, and says we have “the potential here for that kind of a situation.” He’s also concerned about the lack of a lining at the Duke facilities, which Collins says can put groundwater at risk.
“Is it a hazardous material?” asked Collins. “How you can take coal ash with all its heavy metals and classify it as nonhazardous?
“This stuff is so dangerous even the people working to clean it up (in Tennessee) have to have masks on and rubber boots to protect them,” he said.
McCabe admitted he wouldn’t “say there aren’t environmental concerns,” and said voluntary groundwater well testing near the sites showed “some exceedences.” Yet those wells predated EPA requirements and were much closer to the Duke plants than the EPA standard, McCabe said. He did not say which levels exceeded water standards.
However, both McCabe and Collins agree classifying coal ash as hazardous material will be costly. McCabe said classification would multiply the tonnage of hazardous waste nationally many times over and additional company costs trickle down to customers.
“The problems are, one, the new regulations are technically unwarranted,” McCabe said. “Two, they’re overly costly and, three, this proposal takes out all beneficial uses.”
Products such as gypsum often use coal byproduct, which would be impacted with a hazardous classification, McCabe said. Gypsum is used to create plaster, fertilizer and drywall, among other uses.
Collins said as a power customer, he doesn’t want increased costs. However, he said, the price of keeping coal ash on local waterways outweighs the inconvenience.
“The cost of all this comes back to the end user, the public,” he said.
Have an opinion?
The Environmental Protection Agency extended the formal comment period for a decision about how to classify coal ash from its original Sept. 20 deadline to Nov. 19. A public hearing will be held 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Holiday Inn Charlotte, 2707 Little Rock Road, Charlotte. For more information, call 704-394-4301. For more information or to register to speak, visit epa.gov and search “coal ash public hearing.”
What is coal ash?
Coal combustion residuals, commonly referred to as coal ash, are the materials that remain after burning coal for electricity. CCRs include fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and flue gas desulfurized gypsum. CCRs typically contain a broad range of metals, including arsenic, selenium, and cadmium; however, the leach levels, using EPA’s Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure, rarely reach the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act hazardous waste characteristic levels.
CCRs are one of the largest waste streams generated in the United States. According to the American Coal Ash Association’s Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report, more than 136 million tons of CCRs were generated in 2008.Source, epa.gov