As Gov. Pat McCrory and state legislators battle over control of Duke Energy’s coal ash cleanup, the Marshall power plant on Lake Norman shows there will be no easy solutions.
Since 1965, when the plant opened, Marshall has accumulated so much ash that the company says it can’t meet a state deadline of 2024 to get rid of it.
Ash results from burning coal, and it holds metals that can be toxic in high doses. It has contaminated groundwater at all 14 of Duke’s N.C. coal plants, although the company maintains it has not reached private wells.
At Marshall, more than 16 million tons of ash lie submerged in a “pond” – the largest Duke owns in North Carolina – that could hold a small fleet of boats. Duke officials say it would take 800,000 truckloads and two decades to haul it away, as the state ordered last week.
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Landfills, including one nearly the height of Marshall’s smokestacks, hold another 14 million tons.
Ash covers so much of the power plant’s 2,000 acres that Duke says little acreage is left at Marshall to build a new landfill to bury excavated ash.
“There’s no easy place to put it,” Duke Vice President Brian Weisker said during a media tour Thursday.
What will happen to the coal ash? The disposal options for ash at Marshall and nine other Duke power plants come down to three options:
Dig it up
The Department of Environmental Quality said last week that ash at all 14 of Duke’s N.C. coal plants should be excavated.
But DEQ wants to revisit those decisions in 18 months, giving Duke time to make repairs that reduce the risks of spills or spreading contamination. Regulators could then decide that Duke does have to dig up all 111 million tons of ash across the state.
“If they can eliminate risks to groundwater and dam safety, we believe that warrants the opportunity to reevaluate any facility,” spokesman Mike Rusher said.
Leave it alone
Duke wants to leave the pond ash where it is, drained and capped to keep out water. “You’re going to end up with the same environmental outcome as far as protecting this area and the neighborhoods, with much, much lower costs,” Weisker said.
Environmental advocates and many power plant neighbors hotly disagree, saying that option would leave ash sitting perpetually in groundwater that is already contaminated. Their experts have challenged Duke’s studies showing little chance of contamination moving to Marshall’s neighbors.
Think about it
McCrory and legislators split over a bill the N.C. House approved Wednesday that recreates an oversight ash commission but delays final cleanup decisions. The bill extends a public comment period and gives the commission up to eight months to review DEQ’s recommendations.
McCrory has promised to veto the bill, which the N.C. Senate has not approved. Duke supports it, saying the extra time would allow more options such as recyling ash to make concrete.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents advocates suing Duke over ash contamination, says the House bill undermines the 2014 state law that is making Duke clean up its ash. The measure gives Duke “more time to try to convince regulators to undo the cleanup requirements,” the center says.
The Senate refused to accept the bill Thursday, but named three members to negotiate with the House.