In recent years, coal ash stored at Duke Energy power plants has drawn environmental scrutiny, but road work in Gaston County shows how the material can also turn up elsewhere.
When the N.C. Department of Transportation began repairing a pipe under N.C. 16 in Lucia this year, the initial investigation revealed that some of the fill material in the area was coal ash, N.C. DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson told the Observer.
Duke came under wide scrutiny for coal ash, a byproduct of generating electricity, in 2014 following an ash spill into the Dan River near the Virginia border. That incident triggered legislation ordering Duke to close all 32 of its North Carolina ash basins at current or former power plans. The utility has estimated its ash cleanup costs in the Carolinas will total $2.5 billion by 2021.
But for decades, coal ash, which has a known ability to contaminate groundwater, was also used as structural fill to level ground and fill in gullies. It can turn up under road beds, parking lots and other locations. The state has solid waste records on some of the fills but not all of them.
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During the work on N.C. 16, “any coal ash material encountered during the course of the repair was properly disposed of while maintaining contact with the required regulatory agencies,” Thompson, the DOT spokeswoman, said.
The coal ash did not cause any delays in the project, which started in February, she said. The work along a busy highway that connects Charlotte to Catawba County is about 80 percent complete, she said.
Paige Sheehan, a Duke spokeswoman, said it was not uncommon in the 1980s and 1990s for coal ash to be used as structural fill. As for the ash found along N.C. 16, “we worked with the property owner at the time, and they created a fill with coal ash that we provided,” Sheehan said. “That’s why it showed up in that general area.”
Typically, Duke said it would transfer the ash to an ash management company, which would then work with the property owner under the permit requirements at the time.
Sheehan noted that the property owner would be responsible for any monitoring of the material. Over time, rules have changed, she said, noting today “any kind of structural fill is governed by state and federal rules and different permitting requirements.”
The property next to the N.C. 16 road work is owned by New Covenant United Methodist Church, according to county property records. The church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Duke is currently in the process of asking state regulators to hike electricity rates for Charlotte-area residents by 16.7 percent, part of a move by the utility to pass high costs for cleaning up coal ash sites on to its customers.