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Charlotte considers swapping land with Duke Energy to bury coal ash

Coal Ash Spill
Gerry Broome - AP
Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden in February.

Charlotte city staff on Wednesday pitched a new idea for how to dispose of 4.7 million tons of coal ash perched on the banks of the city’s main reservoir: a land swap in which Charlotte would give Duke land to bury the waste.

Officials proposed the idea instead of Duke Energy’s original idea to bury the ash under a planned runway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and build on top of it, an idea the airport rejected as too risky.

Under the new plan, Charlotte would give Duke 128 acres of vacant woodland at Interstate 485 and Wilkinson Boulevard to bury the ash. In return, Duke would give the airport 42 acres where the power company has an operations center south of Wilkinson, next to an airport parking lot.

Duke is considering the swap, which would require it to relocate the operations center and up to 250 workers. Company officials said they don’t know when they’ll decide whether to pursue the idea.

“The operations center in question is extremely important to us,” said Tim Gause, Duke’s director of government relations, after a meeting of Charlotte City Council’s environmental committee. “It’s a very complex decision we’ll be making. We need a little more time.”

Some council members were skeptical of the idea. Details – such as the value of the parcels of land and where Duke’s operations center might relocate – were scarce on the new proposal.

At stake is the final resting place of millions of tons of coal ash laden with toxic heavy metals that now sit in unlined pits next to Mountain Island Lake, where Charlotte gets its drinking water. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity at its retired Riverbend Steam Station. Duke, state legislators, regulators and local governments are wrestling with how to close Duke’s 33 coal ash ponds scattered across North Carolina.

Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi said if Duke decides not to go along with the plan, the idea of moving coal ash to airport property is finished.

“If Duke says no, we’re done,” said Yi.

Council member David Howard said he was concerned about the possible threat to the airport if anything goes wrong with the coal ash disposal, and he asked staff to examine other sites farther from Charlotte Douglas

“I still, for the life of me, cannot figure out why I’d vote for this,” said Howard. “I’m not against us participating, but that’s just too close (to Charlotte Douglas) for me.”

Yi said the city had examined all of its other land holdings, and there’s no other site suited to disposing of millions of tons of coal ash. The recommended property is hemmed in by a rail freight line and highways and subject to development restrictions because it is directly north of the airport’s runways.

Council member Ed Driggs asked staff for more details on the proposal, and council member Kenny Smith said he was concerned the idea appeared at first glance to be a better deal for Duke than the city.

Driggs also pointed out that the state has told Duke it will be required to remove the ash from Riverbend, with or without the plan to store it at the airport. On Wednesday, the state told Duke to submit plans for removing the ash and proposals for where to put it by Nov. 15.

“The coal ash will be moved,” said Driggs. “It’s going to be moved because the state says it must.”

He said the land swap “has the potential to be a highly beneficial transaction.”

Regardless of what the city and Duke decide, it’s possible the state legislature might intervene and pass other requirements. Though the N.C. General Assembly finished its short session without passing a new coal ash disposal law, it left the door open to such legislation in the future.

“We’re in limbo,” said Rob Phocas, Charlotte’s energy and sustainability manager. “We’re not sure what’s going on there.”

Committee Chairman John Autry summed up the uncertainty: “Anything we’re doing to help move this down the road a little bit could be pre-empted.”

‘Coal ash burrito’

The city and Duke first publicly raised the idea of storing coal ash at the airport in March, a month after the Dan River spill. The original plan called for Duke and Charah, a Kentucky-based coal ash firm, to truck the ash from Riverbend and bury it inside a thick, waterproof liner and wrap it up like a giant burrito. Then, the wrapped ash would be buried under 6 feet of dirt and monitored for any leaks.

The thought was that Charlotte Douglas could save $30 million on fill dirt costs by using the ash to grade and level land for a planned new runway.

But the idea ran into trouble when interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said there were too many questions about whether and how well coal ash would work under a runway. Cagle objected, and the city and Duke started looking for other sites on the airport’s property where the ash could be buried.

Cagle said the airport has wanted to acquire the land Duke’s operation center sits on for years and has a standing offer to buy the parcel. But so far, Duke hasn’t wanted to sell. Cagle said the airport would use Duke’s operations center for offices, and could develop part of the property into more airport parking. The land is next to Long Term Parking Lot 1 at Charlotte Douglas.

Howard raised the possibility that Duke could relocate the operations center out of Charlotte.

“Do we lose jobs because it goes somewhere else?” Howard said.

Wherever the coal ash ends up, moving it will be a massive undertaking. City staff estimate it will take 220 dump truck trips a day, five days a week, for five years to remove all the coal ash stored at Mountain Island Lake.

“There are, without a doubt, some short-term negative impacts,” said Yi, citing pollution from the hundreds of thousands of diesel truck trips and increased traffic.

A proposed route for trucks to move the ash from the site on Mountain Island Lake to the new burial site shows trucks going east on Brookshire Boulevard, south on I-485 and east on Wilkinson Boulevard.

But Yi said the long-term benefits of moving the coal ash away from the city’s main reservoir outweigh the short-term costs.

“Taking the ash away from Mountain Island Lake, wherever you put it – the airport, somewhere else – is good,” Yi said. Staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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