Duke Energy’s plan to dig up 12 more coal ash ponds, announced Tuesday, means the company now aims to excavate 24 of its 36 ponds in the Carolinas.
An environmental advocate who slammed Duke’s ash handling before and after a spill into the Dan River last year applauded the move, which will transfer ash to lined disposal sites.
The dozen ponds in Eastern North Carolina that Duke identified Tuesday are “heavy polluters and they’re in extremely dangerous locations,” said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This is a long, long way from where we started in 2012 when utilities said they would never do this.”
But the 12 remaining ponds for which Duke hasn’t yet charted a cleanup plan hold more than 70 percent of the 108 million tons of ash held in North Carolina ponds.
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Duke wants much of that ash to stay near the power plants that produced it. Ash would be stored in lined landfills or kept in place in drained ponds with caps to keep out rain.
“They’re candidates for cap-in-place, but there’s a lot of work left to do to protect groundwater, including post-closure,” said Garry Miller, Duke’s senior vice president for closure engineering.
Risk ratings to be released by state officials later this year will also dictate how and when Duke’s ponds are closed.
Groundwater contamination and hundreds of leaks have been found at the 32 ash ponds in North Carolina. State legislators last year, reacting to an ash spill into the Dan River, gave Duke until 2029 to close them all.
Under the plan announced Tuesday, which needs regulators’ approval, ash would be dug from five ponds at the Cape Fear power plant in Chatham County, five at the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro and one at the Weatherspoon plant in Lumberton.
An inactive pond would be excavated at the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County and placed in a landfill on the plant property.
Duke has now released ash excavation plans for all seven of the power plants that were either marked by legislators as high priorities or named in criminal charges the company paid $102 million to settle in May.
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said he’s disappointed Duke hasn’t made similar commitments for ash at two other Charlotte-area power plants, Allen on Lake Wylie and Marshall on Lake Norman.
“Unlike the sites announced for cleanups today, these two coal ash sites also are propped high above drinking water reservoirs that also provide significant property tax revenue,” Perkins said in a statement. “Given their proximity to millions of people and their problems being the same as or worse than coal ash sites in the state already slated for cleanups, what reason is there to leave them leaking in place?”
Most of the ash from Cape Fear, Lee and Weatherspoon would go to former open-pit clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties. The 4.5 million tons of ash at the Riverbend plant west of Charlotte will go to the Brickhaven mine in Chatham County, Duke said Tuesday.
Duke will pay both counties to take its ash. Chatham County will be paid $1.50 a ton up to 12 million tons and get additional payments in lieu of property taxes. Lee County will get $1.50 a ton up to 8 tons of ash.
A panel of outside experts led by UNC Charlotte engineer John Daniels developed a set of “guiding principles” to help Duke decide how to close its ponds.
The 12 ponds named Tuesday all had engineering problems, such as being built in floodplains or in need of repair, Daniels said. That tilted Duke’s decision toward removing the ash they hold elsewhere.
The dozen remaining ponds – including those at the Allen plant on Lake Wylie and Marshall on Lake Norman – don’t show obvious problems, allowing options other than excavation. Work to assess them is underway, much of it focused on the flow of groundwater around the ponds.
Closure plans are due to the Environmental Protection Agency, under federal coal ash rules announced in December, by October 2016.
Duke said it will take interim steps to protect groundwater, rivers and lakes until the ponds are closed.
The company says it will eliminate the hundreds of leaks, called seeps, from ash ponds within six to 12 months by rerouting the flow of water back into the ponds.
That work will help Duke comply with the terms of new wastewater discharge permits that will take effect this year for its power plants, Duke senior vice president Harry Sideris said.
The state’s new Coal Ash Management Commission, in a report earlier this month, urged Duke and state policy makers to recycle ash to make concrete and other products.
“You still have 70 percent of that ash that a guy like me remains hopeful (Duke) can find some beneficial use for,” Daniels said. But recycling markets have to be able to absorb the ash, he added.
Duke says it expects to complete within a month or two a review of proposals to build a processing plant that would make its ash suitable for concrete.