Putting coal ash at the airport still on the table

Charlotte city officials and Duke Energy are still trying to figure our where to put millions of tons of coal ash sitting on the banks of Mountain Island Lake as they consider sites at Charlotte Douglas International Airport other than under runways.

At a Monday meeting of the Charlotte City Council’s Environmental Committee, officials said Duke is weighing the city’s counterproposal to the company’s original idea of putting ash under the airfield. But they didn’t give any details on where the ash might go, even when City Council members questioned them.

“I’d like to keep it general and not put Duke into a box,” said Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi. “You don’t want to put Duke in a box, where they have to make a decision now because everything’s public.”

Yi said he expects to have a recommendation and details available in August. He said the city hasn’t asked Duke what alternatives it is considering besides the airport plan.

City officials have looked at sites for the ash north and south of the airport’s westernmost runway. Charlotte Douglas owns the land, but it isn’t used as part of the airfield.

Environmental groups such as the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation have been generally supportive of the idea of burying coal ash at the airport, as long as proper monitoring and runoff collection is in place. They say it would likely be a better solution than leaving the ash in unlined pits next to the reservoir.

Duke first proposed in March moving 4 million tons of ash leftover from burning coal to generate electricity at the retired Riverbend power plant to a lined, sealed landfill at the airport. That was shortly after a Feb. 2 spill led to tens of thousands of tons of coal ash pouring into the Dan River.

At the airport, the sealed ash would be buried under 6 feet of dirt. The idea was to wrap the ash completely in a burrito-style liner and use it as fill dirt to create level land for construction. That could save the airport millions of dollars worth of fill dirt in building a proposed fourth parallel runway, officials said.

But the original plan hit a snag in May, when interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said putting coal ash under a runway or other surface where aircraft move wouldn’t work. The risk of disruption if the liner began to leak and had to be repaired would be too great at an airport with more than 700 daily departures.

On Monday, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann said the company is “still engaged in the related due diligence process with the city” but declined to give further details on the status of the plan.

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury. Such substances can contaminate drinking water that’s exposed to the ash. Mountain Island Lake is Charlotte’s main source of drinking water.

The Riverbend ash storage pits aren’t the only places Duke is under pressure to clean up coal ash. The N.C. House and Senate are wrangling over a measure that would require Duke to close its coal ash pits in the state within 15 years. The Senate rejected a House version of the bill last week, sending the measure to a compromise committee.

Council member John Autry, chairman of the environmental committee, said Duke’s final plans for the Riverbend ash will likely be dependent on the legislation. But he was confident the ash will be moved.

“They just can’t let it sit there,” said Autry.