Lee County wants fees to take Duke Energy’s coal ash

Lee County officials say the county deserves to be paid fees, potentially millions of dollars, by Duke Energy and a partner planning to bury coal ash there.

Duke announced plans last month to start shipping ash from two power plants to reclaim open-pit clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties.

Charah Inc., the Louisville, Ky.-based company that will do the project and own the ash, says the mines could hold 20 million tons. The first phase will ship 2.9 million tons from Duke’s Riverbend plant near Charlotte and the Sutton plant in Wilmington.

Lee County argues that the mine project is essentially a landfill. Under state solid waste law, counties award franchises for privately built landfills that typically include host fees of $2 or more per ton of waste.

The two-month-old legislation – which for the first time in North Carolina allows mines to be filled with ash – describes such projects as structural fill, preparing land for future development. The law doesn’t mention host fees.

“The General Assembly basically gave (Duke) a handout,” Lee County manager John Crumpton said. “Really, this is a cost avoidance issue for Duke Energy.”

Crumpton, who formerly worked for waste management companies, said Duke and Charah officials “laughed at me” when he brought up the issue. He said the mine plan surprised county officials, who were told a day before Duke publicly announced it.

“We’d like to be compensated like other people are being compensated,” Crumpton said. Lee County is seeking outside counsel, he said.

Charah’s chief operating officer, Scott Sewell, said host fees don’t apply to the mines.

“Host fees are associated with landfills, and this is a structural fill where the land will be restored for an intended use,” he said. Charah says it expects to invest $10 million locally, create 100 jobs and leave a site potentially suited to future development.

Conversations have just begun with local officials, Sewell said, adding that Charah wants to “figure out a solution that will help everyone understand the project.”

Duke issued only a brief statement.

“Considerations like this illustrate the complex nature of addressing this important challenge and meeting the aggressive timeline” of 2019 to 2029 to close its 32 ash ponds, it said. “We will continue to work through these issues as we advance the process.”

Legally allowed

The state Division of Waste Management, which received applications from Charah and its subsidiary Green Meadow LLC on Nov. 21, said it’s processing them as structural fill permits allowed by the new ash law.

State Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Cumberland County Republican who represents Lee County, said he couldn’t recall host fees coming up during debate over the bill. He said some changes could be made to the measure when legislators convene in mid-January.

“What I saw in the (Duke-Charah) presentation was fully in keeping with the current legislation. There was nothing underhanded,” Rabin said. “I think they’re trying to do everything they can to correct the (ash) problem.”

New Chatham County commissioners were sworn in Monday night. They didn’t discuss the project but could take it up at a meeting Thursday, county manager Charlie Horne said.

Lee commissioners’ chairman Charlie Parks says the Duke-Charah plan appears to be a safe use for ash – except for what they call it.

“We think this is a landfill like anything else,” he said. “You can call it what you want, but it’s a hole in the ground and you’re filling it up.”

County wary

Lee County is believed to hold natural gas reserves that have put it in the middle of North Carolina’s debate over the drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing.

The plans Duke and Charah announced with little warning this month caught local officials and residents off guard in a county, one of the state’s smallest, already wary of fracking.

“Because it’s so rapidly moving, there are plenty of people in Lee County who will be affected who know very little about it,” said Debbie Hall, vice president of an environmental group that is knocking on doors near the mine.

Hall said her group, EnvironmentaLEE, is concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination and ash blown from trucks and rail cars.

“We have some great concerns about liability,” she said. “Once it leaves Charlotte and the hands of Duke, whose liability will it be if there’s a tragedy?”

The new law says permit applicants have to prove they’re financially able to close and monitor large structural fills for environmental problems for decades. In the Chatham-Lee case, that assurance will come from the smaller, privately held Charah instead of the $50 billion Duke.

The ash shipments – which could start in March if the state approves permits – will affect the Charlotte area.

The 12-month first phase will send 885,000 tons from Duke’s Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake to the Chatham County mine, with the Lee County mine as an alternative. Another 115,000 tons will go to a concrete plant in Troutville, Va.

Most of it will ship by rail, a plan that pleases Sara Behnke of the community group We Love Mountain Island Lake. But it will take about six months to build rail loading facilities, and until then the ash will move by truck – 120 to 142 a day.

“I’m very, very concerned about heavy truck traffic on that road” from Riverbend, which is narrow, twisting and serves the several hundred homes in the Stonewater development, Behnke said. State officials should hold a public hearing near the plant to hear from local residents, she said.

Reclaimed mines

State law requires that mines be reclaimed to some “useful purpose.” Many are converted to ponds or filled with construction debris or other material. Filled sites have to be capped and planted with vegetation.

The state law under which Charah will work, enacted after Duke’s February ash spill into the Dan River, sets new standards for large structural fills.

For fills totaling 80,000 tons or more of ash, the law requires synthetic liners, minimum distances from private wells and groundwater, systems to collect leached liquids and monitoring for 30 years. Ash contains heavy metals that can be toxic in high doses.

Even so, the law sets lower standards for ash fills than for municipal landfills.

Solid waste landfills are exposed to years of rain that can carry contaminants toward groundwater, unlike structural fills that can be completed within months. They also hold a wider range of constituents.

Environmental impact studies aren’t required for ash fills, unlike municipal landfills. Municipal landfills must be located farther from streams, property lines and private homes or wells – 200 feet, 300 feet and 500 feet, respectively, compared with 50 feet, 50 feet and 300 feet for structural fills.

Nor does the ash law address the 82 legacy ash fills scattered across the state, some of which have contaminated water.