Coal ash risks near Charlotte debated at public meeting

Neighbors of Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants spoke at a press conference in Gaston County on Tuesday.
Neighbors of Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants spoke at a press conference in Gaston County on Tuesday. The Charlotte Observer

Much of the talk at a public meeting Tuesday night on the risks of coal ash stored at the closed Riverbend power plant west of Charlotte wasn’t about Riverbend.

The plant’s two ash ponds on the Gaston County side of Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s major drinking water source, were deemed high-risk by state legislation in 2014. Work has been underway since May to excavate and haul away the 4.5 million tons of ash by 2019.

But the fate of ash at two other Duke Energy power plants on a 29-mile stretch of the Catawba River, Allen on Lake Wylie and Marshall on Lake Norman, remains undecided. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality tentatively ranked those plants as low-to-intermediate risk, meaning ash might be allowed to stay in place.

That’s a nonstarter for Belmont resident Amy Brown, who reminded DEQ that more than 100 Allen neighbors are using bottled water because of well contaminants whose sources haven’t been settled.

“It seems like we’re having to fight to be classified as high priority,” meaning ash would be removed, she said. Brown added: “I promise you I know more about water contamination and government contamination than I ever thought I would know.”

Distrust of state regulators under Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, and suspicions that Duke is being weakly policed, are common themes in the communities near its power plants. McCrory, a former Duke employee, is running for re-election.

“We have got to take some responsibility, and Gov. McCrory has to step up and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and protect the citizens of North Carolina,” said Chuck Myers, who lives on Mountain Island Lake and volunteers as a lake watchdog for the Catawba River Foundation.

McCrory’s campaign spokesman, Ricky Diaz, responded to similar attacks made in a news conference before Tuesday’s meeting by the advocacy group Progress NC Action.

“Progress NC is nothing more than (Democratic candidate) Roy Cooper’s SuperPAC that has been attacking Gov. McCrory for years, and has zero credibility on this issue because they won’t disclose what out-of-state groups are funding their attacks,” Diaz said. “They also don’t want you to know that Gov. McCrory and his administration are fixing the very problems that Attorney General Roy Cooper, previous governors and past state officials ignored for decades.”

Duke, for its part, repeated that it will clean up its ash ponds as science and regulators require.

“We’re committed to closing our ash basins in North Carolina in a way that’s safe for people and the environment,” said Tim Gause, Duke’s district manager in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.

Riverbend’s risks

Tuesday night’s meeting was among the first in a series of meetings statewide on ash at each of Duke’s 14 operating or retired coal plants.

Only one private well is within a half-mile of Riverbend, and it’s across the lake in Mecklenburg County, Duke has reported to the state.

A corrective action plan Duke filed in February acknowledged that ash has contaminated groundwater under Riverbend’s two ponds with toxic elements including arsenic, hexavalent chromium and thallium. It reported that other elements are naturally occurring, including chromium, cobalt, iron and manganese.

Groundwater from the site runs generally toward the lake, and Duke reported that contaminants may pose risks to water-dependent mammals and birds, and to anglers who eat fish caught near Riverbend. It advised further study.

The plan proposes that contaminants in groundwater be monitored after ash is excavated, but be allowed to naturally degrade over time.

After excavation, a separate Duke report said, “the degree of contamination and the persistence of this contamination over time cannot be determined at this time.”

Riverbend is one of Duke’s oldest power plants, dating to 1929. It was retired in 2013.

Dry ash from the plant was initially sent to a landfill in northern Georgia, but now is shipped by rail to an abandoned clay mine in Chatham County.

Duke began draining surface water from the Riverbend ponds in January as a prelude to excavating ash from them. This month, the state approved a permit to drain more highly contaminated water that is mixed with ash.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Riverbend comments

Comments on the risk classification may be sent to Riverbendcomments@ncdenr.gov until April 18.