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‘Last best chance to be heard’: What’s next for Lake Wylie’s 19M tons of coal ash?

Duke Energy plans to close its NC coal plants

Some advocates for closing plants say the changes aren't coming soon enough.
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Some advocates for closing plants say the changes aren't coming soon enough.

North Carolina regulators are moving toward a decision on how to protect Lake Wylie from potentially dangerous heavy metals as Duke Energy prepares to close its Allen Steam Station in the next 10 years.

“All closure plans will protect people and the environment,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton. “Not just our preferred choice.”

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality began a series of six public information sessions this month on coal ash storage options. The final meeting is Jan. 29 in Belmont, N.C., for Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie.

Duke has submitted four options:

  • Place protective caps over ash stored in existing ponds at the Allen site;
  • Consolidate the ash into a smaller area and then cap it;
  • Excavate and move the ash to a new landfill on site;
  • Or remove the coal ash to an off-site landfill.

Duke says any of the options will keep the coal ash out of public water. Duke also says capping is cheaper and quicker with less disruption to the community.

“It’s been, protect my water,” Norton said of community feedback. “Our response has been, under all four scenarios, your water is protected.”

Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones disagrees.

“We are advocating for full excavation, at this site and Marshall,” he said.

His group is concerned about capping options that would keep coal ash close to the lake. Lake Wylie is York County’s and Belmont’s source for drinking water. Jones is urging full excavation of ash at the Allen site and Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman.

‘Everyone’s issue’

Coal ash is a residual formed when coal is burned at power plants. It can, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, include mercury, cadmium, arsenic, boron and other metals potentially harmful to human health. The EPA states contaminants in coal ash can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air.

Norton said many of those metals occur naturally in groundwater, even in wells uphill of ash basins at Allen Steam Station.

In late 2008, a dike failure at a plant in Kingston, Tenn., released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into nearby waters. The spill covered 300 acres. Final cleanup efforts were completed seven years later in 2015 and cost about $1.2 billion.

In 2014, a Duke coal ash site failed and about 39,000 tons spilled into the Dan River in Eden, N.C.

The EPA says both the Tennessee and North Carolina spill “caused widespread environmental and economic damage to nearby waterways and properties.”

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation says that’s why the material shouldn’t be stored along rivers and lakes as it is on Lake Wylie. The Allen site has a dam between ash ponds and the lake.

“This is kind of an issue for everyone,” Jones said. “This stuff will be poisonous forever. This is a problem forever. This is the public’s last best chance to be heard.”

EPA information on arsenic in drinking water lists cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate along with non-cancerous impacts linked to long-term exposure. Other metals associated with coal ash have similar carcinogenic links.

“The main thing we’ve stressed all along is that closure decisions really need to be driven by science and engineering,” Norton said. “We really want to do it efficiently as well as safely.”

Time and cost

Duke has a state deadline of 2029 and federal deadline of 2034 to have the material capped at the Allen site or removed. At 293 acres between two coal ash ponds at Allen, Duke is dealing with 19.3 million tons of ash, according to a company site closure engineer.

Duke has provided state regulators a series of estimates for how long the closure options would take, and how much Duke expects the job will cost:

  • Capping the material where it is would cost an estimated $185 million. It would take almost nine years, if work begins in 2020.

  • The hybrid approach of consolidating the ash on site and capping it would cost $280 million and take more than 10 years. “The hybrid does not appear to be the better economic choice,” said Duke closure engineer Dave Renner.
  • Creating a landfill on the site doubles the cost and time, Duke estimates, at $558 million and 22 years. Duke would have to double handle the ash, first moving 10 million cubic yards of it to make room for the 91-acre lined landfill and then putting it back in that landfill.

  • Duke estimates a full excavation and removal, as the Riverkeeper Foundation wants, would cost $1.2 billion and take almost 20 years. Renner said there isn’t a landfill within 50 miles set up to take the material.

Renner said he expects residents in the area would experience 150 trucks a day in each direction hauling material for 20 years.

Jones, however, points to similar coal ash projects in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia where initial high-cost estimates for excavation were overblown, he said. Coal ash can be recycled into construction material, which Jones says will bring in contractors willing to excavate at lower costs.

“The tide its turning,” Jones said. “It’s showing that this can be done.”

‘Full picture’

The Riverkeeper and Duke agree there are many factors to consider — public safety, cost and community impact.

“You do have to look at it from the full picture, obviously,” Jones said. “But we’re there to protect the environment, to protect the people who live in the area.”

Capping coal ash beside a flowing river and lake, he said, isn’t the answer.

“That’s not a cure,” Jones said. “It’s a band-aid. And not even a good one.”

At the recent meeting for the Marshall site on Lake Norman, more than 500 people attended. Jones said part of the reason involves health problems experienced by residents in the area, which he says some people attribute to coal ash near water sources. He will wait on testing, and doesn’t yet link the two.

He expects a similar turnout for the Allen site.

“In Belmont, you’ve got people who were on bottled water for over three years,” Jones said.

Duke began providing bottled water to homeowners with wells near coal ash sites after the Dan River spill. The bottled water wasn’t an admission by Duke that the groundwater was unclean, it was a stopgap to meet a state requirement either to connect homeowners to public water systems or install filtration on their wells if it’s near a coal ash site.

Norton said well testing around coal ash sites at Allen and elsewhere consistently shows the water is comparable to groundwater farther away.

“That’s real world testing and monitoring that’s going on now,” he said. “Testing shows the wells are safe. They’ll remain safe in the future under all closure options.”

Testing the waters

In October, Duke testing detected arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, lithium and thallium at levels above the groundwater protection standard at the active and retired ash basins at Allen, along with the retired basin landfill.

“The groundwater monitoring wells in that report are located immediately next to the basin or landfill,” Norton said. “They do not reflect groundwater conditions farther away or off plant property where neighbors are located.”

Duke voluntarily began the groundwater testing more than a decade ago, he said, and was taking steps to keep the community safe before it was regulated. Testing also is a part of the larger decision for utilities and regulators on which ash basins should close, but Duke already has committed to closing all of its sites.

“The hundreds of monitoring wells encircling our Allen ash basins demonstrate there have been no impacts to neighbors’ drinking water wells, and the state’s independent testing of neighbor wells around Allen also confirmed they had not been impacted by ash,” Norton said. “Likewise, our routine surface water testing of Lake Wylie shows that water remains safe from coal ash impacts.”

Duke no longer adds coal ash to the wet basins, the types of ponds near waterways that spilled in Tennessee and North Carolina. Any option chosen by the state would involve draining water from the site first, Norton said, further reducing stress on groundwater by lightening the weight of the ash ponds.

All four options would have environmental impacts.

Trees around the basins will have to be removed to get equipment in for capping or excavating.

“There’s going to be a big change for folks that live on that side,” Renner said. “You’ve got the proximity of the homes here that you don’t have elsewhere.”

Want to go?

The NCDEQ will host a public information meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 29 at Stuart Cramer High School in Belmont, N.C. The meeting will feature discussion on closure options for coal ash impoundments at Allen Steam Station on Lake Wylie.

Timeline

1957 Allen Steam Station opens. Two coal-fired units open in first year, followed by one each in 1959, 1960 and 1961. The station on upper Lake Wylie generates 1,140 megawatts, the only Duke facility with five such units under one roof.

1973 Allen adds its active ash basin. The original basin is retired and later converted to a landfill.

2004 Duke begins regular groundwater monitoring and reporting around its ash basins. Results are routinely sent to state regulators. Duke finds no groundwater impact from the ash basins.

2009 Allen converts to handling the majority of its coal ash in a lined landfill.

Nov. 13, 2014 Duke announced coal ash excavation plans for four facilities, including the Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C., on Mountain Island Lake. It sits upstream from Lake Wylie and is Charlotte’s source for drinking water. The 4.6 million tons of coal ash would be stored in fill projects in Moncure and Sanford, both in N.C. ,along with recycling by Roanoke Cement Co.

Feb. 6, 2015 Duke sends a letter to Allen neighbors noting a new comprehensive groundwater study near ash basins that will include 14 new monitoring sites, including Allen.

April 17, 2015 The EPA sets a rules regulating coal ash disposal. The rules apply to new and existing ash ponds. They require pond operators to record compliance, notify state regulators with reports and maintain a public website to access information.

May 1, 2015 Duke begins relocating ash to a fully-lined landfill from the Riverbend plant. Excavation begins with 10 truckloads a day. A landfill in Homer, Ga., is an interim destination as permitting continues for the North Carolina sites. Riverbend, which started power production in 1929, was retired in 2013.

May 15, 2015 North Carolina regulators issue industrial stormwater permits for the Allen (Lake Wylie), Marshall (Lake Norman) and Riverbend plants. The move allows material from Riverbend to go to permanent storage sites.

July 2, 2015 Duke sends a letter to Allen neighbors stating unlike other sites in the state, Allen may be a candidate for capping its coal ash in place rather than excavating it.

Aug. 17, 2015 Duke announces it tested 24 private wells near but unimpacted by three power stations, including Allen and Marshall, and determined materials like heavy metals in the water are naturally-occurring.

Sept. 29, 2015 Duke announces it will pay $7 million to resolve alleged groundwater violations at its 14 North Carolina facilities. Duke settled with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which the previous March levied a $25.1 million fine for alleged violations at a plant in Wilmington, N.C.

Dec. 17, 2015 Duke sends a letter to Allen neighbors stating they may see an uptick in truck traffic due to engineering studies and improvements to the site.

January 2016 Duke begins dewatering at Riverbend, gradually removing water from the basin to access the ash. It’s a key step in any measure to cap or remove coal ash. By the third quarter of 2016, Duke announces 100 trains have moved more than 850,000 tons of ash from Riverbend.

Nov. 22, 2016 Duke announces proposed closure plans for 36 coal ash basin regulated by the federal Coal Combustion Residuals rule. They include Allen and Marshall sites. Combined with prior proposals for other sites, Duke proposes excavating 34 basins and capping 18 others.

Dec. 7, 2016 Duke announces details on permanent water solutions for neighbors of seven coal ash sites, including Allen. They include offering connections to public water systems or filtration systems for wells.

March 2017 Duke consultants begin additional testing and groundwater monitoring, including new monitoring wells near South Point Road in Belmont.

Early 2018 Duke completes permanent water supply projects for neighbors of multiple sites, including Allen. Duke also begins demolition of the Riverbend site, to be complete by the end of 2018.

June 2018 Crews install technology at Allen to covert to managing bottom ash dry. It’s one of several projects required to take ash basins out of service.

September 2018 Duke Energy announces plans to close its seven North Carolina coal plants during the next 30 years, according to filings this week with state regulators.

Oct. 15, 2018 Arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, lithium and thallium are detected at levels above the groundwater protection standard at the active and retired ash basin at Allen, along with the retired basin landfill.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.


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