Duke Energy may find shortage of contractors to move coal ash

The North Carolina legislature’s order that Duke Energy close ponds holding more than 100 million tons of coal ash could run into a shortage of contractors to do the work.

The issue came up at a gathering of engineers that filled an auditorium at UNC Charlotte on Thursday.

Part engineering problem, business opportunity and Coal Ash 101, the daylong forum on ash was hosted by UNCC’s Energy Production & Infrastructure Center and an industry group, Professional Engineers of North Carolina.

Work is just beginning on the 15-year plan to close the ponds. Duke will drill nearly 600 new wells to assess the extent of groundwater contamination, its migration and whether private wells have been affected.

“We have not experienced issues gathering the drilling resources we need to date, but have expanded beyond North Carolina,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said by e-mail. “Once the assessment plans are approved, a considerable amount of work will be done in parallel, which might necessitate resources from an even more extensive region.”

New federal rules on coal ash, expected to be released by the Environmental Protection Agency by Dec. 19, could force Duke to compete for contractors with other utilities doing similar work, she added.

The groundwater findings will be a major factor in assigning risk classifications to the 32 ash ponds. Low-risk ponds could leave ash capped in place. High-risk ponds will have to be excavated and the ash moved to lined disposal sites by 2029.

“If every basin were high risk, would we have enough contracting ability to execute all that?” asked John Daniels, a UNCC engineering professor and coal ash researcher.

The 15-year timeframe allows for extensions. But the lack of uniformity among the ponds, in age, topography and other factors, could compound the problem of what to do with them.

“The thing that jumps out at you is how different they are,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, who is visiting Duke’s sites. The Hendersonville Republican was an author of the coal ash bill.

The key decision before the EPA is whether coal ash is hazardous, a finding endorsed by environmentalists but one that would greatly complicate disposal options. Ash contains metals that can be toxic in high doses.

“We will be going back to rewrite the (state) law, because what we have here is incompatible with that happening,” McGrady said.

Daniels’ bet is that the EPA rules will be compatible with North Carolina’s law, including the option of capping ash in place.