Hurricane Florence Puts Coal Ash Back in Headlines – why the legislature should require recycling of all coal ash across the state sooner rather than later

As the North Carolina coast was battered by the unprecedented Hurricane Florence, a coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant in Wilmington, N.C. collapsed displacing over 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash into nearby water ways. At the time of this writing, “[t]he company has not yet determined whether the weir that drains the lake was open or if contamination may have flowed into the Cape Fear River,” according to the Associated Press. Duke Energy later released a statement saying that the amount of coal ash and contaminated storm water flowing into the lake near the plant is unknown.

This spill calls to attention a longstanding environmental issue that continues to threaten North Carolina residents despite the presence of technology for safe clean-up exists that has been implemented in states across the country. The North Carolina legislature should look at this event and the spills associated with recent storm surges and recognize that by delaying the implementation of clean-up technologies, it is directly threatening those who live near coal fired power plants.

Coal ash is the hazardous byproduct of burning coal for energy production and it contains high concentrations of heavy metals and toxins including arsenic, chromium, and mercury that have been linked to increased rates of cancer. Most often, the ash is stored in impoundments, or unlined pits near the coal fired power plant.

This issue has been subject to litigation in North Carolina since the catastrophic Dan River spill in 2014 where 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water were released into the river and neighborhoods near the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. In the subsequent years, North Carolina citizens have watched as Duke Energy plead guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in 2015; as the State Legislature waivered back and forth on how long to give Duke Energy to clean-up the ash; and as Duke Energy received regulatory permission to offset cleanup costs onto the ratepayers. Of course, all of this was and still is occurring as hundreds of families that live around the ponds continue to live off of bottled water because their wells are too contaminated to drink or cook with.

As storms like Florence are predicted to become more common, the North Carolina legislature should turn to the technology available for recycling coal ash and enforce a timely compliance like other state’s legislatures have been able to do.

The current law for coal ash regulation requires that Duke Energy have all ponds excavated or “capped in place” by 2029. The law further requires that Duke recycle the ash at three of it’s fourteen active and retired power plants in North Carolina, but those efforts don’t have to begin until 2020. These timelines continue to be pushed back and leave citizens vulnerable for years longer than they should be.

As storms like Florence are predicted to become more common, the North Carolina legislature should turn to the technology available for recycling coal ash and enforce a timely compliance like other state’s legislatures have been able to do.

Coal ash from the impoundments can be repurposed and recycled into concrete for non-residential infrastructure projects. The solid state of the concrete prohibits the toxins from leaching out into the groundwater, soil, or air, even if the concrete is later demolished or crushed. The EPA ruled that coal ash was non-hazardous as a way of supporting this form of reuse, but utilities like Duke have fought against the practice because of the cost.

Other states are already implementing this recycling process. In Georgetown, South Carolina, the SEFA Group has been recycling wet coal ash from ponds through their Staged Turbulent Air Reactor (STAR) technology that treats the ash in a way to make it appropriate for concrete. Meanwhile Wisconsin  adopted NR538 to “allow and encourage to the maximum extent possible…the beneficial use of industrial byproducts,” and has been recycling more than 85% of the coal ash across the state.

Despite the technology that is available, most of Duke’s coal ash is projected to be reused as structural fill leaving “the coal ash unchanged and in a loose form that is more likely to leach toxins when exposed to water.” The back and forth in state legislation allowed Duke to classify most of its impoundments as lower priority, which gave them the possibility to simply leave it in place. Unlike Wisconsin, which adopted regulations that made it cheaper and easier to recycle coal ash than to dispose of it in impoundments, North Carolina’s legislature has failed its citizens by allowing Duke to delay the clean up process and by refusing to hold it to the new tech standards available for clean-up.

Until recycling is required in all locations, threats to coal ash ponds from storms like Florence will continue. Capping in place will not be a sufficient solution because extensive flooding could expose the ash or lead to sinkholes that inadvertently allow spills. The legislature should promote this recycling tech solution for all the coal ash pits across the state and expand its minimum to reflect this new standard.