Charlotte Douglas International Airport doesn’t want coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant buried under a planned new runway or other airport infrastructure, dealing a potential blow to a proposal that would move millions of tons of ash from Mountain Island Lake to the airport.
Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said there’s uncertainty about how coal ash would work as a fill material under a runway, where it could be subjected to the pounding of hundreds of jets a day at Charlotte Douglas, the sixth-busiest airport in the world.
“We do have concerns about placement of coal ash under airfield infrastructure,” Cagle said. “We believe those concerns, or the risk associated with doing that, are too great in the case of Charlotte to warrant pursuing coal ash under the airfield.”
The airport’s reluctance creates more uncertainty about where millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits near Charlotte will ultimately end up. Charlotte-based Duke has been under pressure to clean up its coal ash ponds since a Feb. 2 spill sent thousands of tons of the toxic material spilling into the Dan River.
Duke, Gov. Pat McCrory and the state legislature are expected to address how to clean up the coal ash sites statewide during the legislature’s session starting next week.
Any disruption caused by using Mountain Island Lake coal ash to build a runway at Charlotte Douglas, which has more than 700 daily departures, would be severe, Cagle said.
“The impacts to our business customers would be enormous,” he said. “So that’s not a risk we’re willing to take.”
Environmentalists say burying the coal ash in a lined landfill at the airport would be a better solution than leaving the material where it is now: in unlined pits on the banks of the city’s drinking water source. If the material isn’t used under the new runway – the biggest construction project proposed at Charlotte Douglas – it’s not clear where the ash might go.
Cagle said it’s possible the airport will find another use for the coal ash. “We’re working with the city to look at possible sites,” Cagle said. “At this point no firm decisions have been made.”
City staff are conducting due diligence on the proposal to move ash to the airport, with a recommendation expected in the coming weeks. The Charlotte City Council will then vote on the proposal. As the airport’s director, Cagle’s view is likely to carry significant weight with the council.
A Duke spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions.
“We continue to work with the airport and evaluate various options that may be appropriate for beneficial reuse of ash,” Lisa Hoffman said in an email.
Part of the problem with Duke’s proposal, Cagle said, is that the airport is currently working on an update of its master plan. That means final decisions for the location of future runways and other infrastructure haven’t been made.
“Once you put this in the ground, you don’t want to dig it up,” Cagle said. “Without an exact knowledge of exactly what the future holds for the airfield, it would be dangerous to put it in a place that may block future development.”
Duke is working with Kentucky-based ash recycling firm Charah Inc. on a plan to create a giant “coal ash burrito” at the airport. The 4 million tons of ash – left over from burning coal to produce electricity – would be wrapped in thick liners and buried under 6 feet of dirt, which would then be smoothed flat and ready to build on.
A similar plan is underway in Asheville, where the airport plans to use the graded land as the foundation for a future cargo facility and to reconstruct its main runway.
Duke doesn’t pay rent or any fees at Asheville Regional Airport. Instead, the company said it pays in-kind with the flat, construction-ready land. Asheville Regional values that at $12 million.
In a March meeting, Charlotte City Council members and other officials discussed the runway as a site for the coal ash.
The airport’s third parallel runway, opened in 2010, required $70 million worth of grading and fill dirt. According to documents, the city projected it could save $30 million if coal ash were used as fill material for the airport’s next runway.
Charlotte Douglas has made its opposition to using the coal ash under runways clear to other city departments.
“Airport does not want the material under any aircraft movement areas,” wrote Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Chief Rob Kinniburgh in late April, in a memo obtained by the Observer through a public records request.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said the city hasn’t finalized its plans. “We’re still doing due diligence and have nothing to report at this time,” Carlee said.
If the ash isn’t used as fill material for a new runway, it’s unclear where it could go on the property, or what the use might be. Without being used for an airport construction project, the site could simply be a large landfill. Airport attorney Leila Lahbabi laid out the question in another April memo.
“What is the test for determining if this would be a landfill or structural fill and can we meet that at the current proposed site? Would we be required to charge rent for use of the land if it’s not being used in a current project?” she wrote.
According to city documents, law firm Moore & Van Allen and the Charlotte Chamber are working to find any other parties that might be interested in using the coal ash fill site.
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, who has helped city staff learn about coal ash, said he still thinks the airport project is a “viable, reasonable solution” to the Riverbend ash.
“We would like to see the willingness to take the steps to get it off our drinking water reservoir,” he said.
It isn’t clear whether the Federal Aviation Administration would sign off on using coal ash at Charlotte Douglas. Cagle said the airport hasn’t discussed the proposal with the FAA yet. During an April meeting of the City Council’s environmental committee, Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi said the FAA could be a “show stopper” if it disapproves of the project, according to records.
During the March council briefing on the coal ash proposal, at-large council member David Howard questioned whether it was a good idea to have ash under a runway, where jets could subject the “burrito lining” to stress from takeoffs and landings.
“If it doesn’t save us money, the idea of just taking it to take it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Howard said. “There are better places for that in N.C. than the airport. I would like to help (Duke) out, but I can’t see us taking on liability unnecessarily.”
Council member Patsy Kinsey was open to bringing the ash to the airport.
“If it had worked out to be at the airport, then it is a safer place, in my opinion, for that coal ash to be than in close proximity to our drinking water,” Kinsey said.
Observer staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed.