The Belews Creek Steam Station ash pond, and 24 similar facilities across the state, have been classified as an intermediate risk by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The final risk assessments were released on May 15, after months of study and public comment. Preliminary rankings for the Belews Creek facility had listed it as a low to intermediate risk.
The Belews Creek facility has been ranked as an intermediate risk for all three of the key safety issues — surface water, dam safety, and groundwater.
Under the current Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) facilities listed as an intermediate risk must be dewatered and either completely excavated or converted to an industrial landfill and closed by the end of 2024.
CAMA does not allow the DEQ to alter its final classifications, but the DEQ is asking the General Assembly to reconsider the current classifications in 18 months, noting that many of the classifications were based on current conditions which may change as Duke Energy makes improvements at each site.
“The deadlines in the coal ash law are too compressed to allow adequate repairs to be completed,” said DEQ Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart. “It also does not allow for revisions to the classifications based on new information about a pond’s risk to public health and the environment.”
Appalachian Voices, an environmental group which has fought for coal ash clean up in recent years, warned that the classifications would be meaningless if they led to changes in CAMA.
“Residents threatened by Duke Energy’s coal ash want results, not headlines,” said Appalachian Voices’ N.C. Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams. “Today’s announcement has no guarantee that DEQ is taking swift and real action to protect these communities. In fact, kicking the can down the road by a year and half — until after the elections — suggests the agency is playing politics with people’s lives. This is typical of how DEQ has approached the coal ash crisis in North Carolina. While it may appear the department will require full cleanup of all ponds by 2024, that’s secondary to its plan to get the legislature to change the coal ash law in ways that would make today’s cleanup rankings meaningless.”
The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash on Thursday issued a statement expressing concerns over the way DEQ was handling the issue.
“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” it reads, noting that the organization also has concerns about how excavation could impact communities that the coal ash is moved to. “Both Lee and Chatham County have sites with permits from DEQ to receive millions of tons of coal ash from unlined ash dumps at several power plants. John Wagner, a community activist with Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps, has seen the Chatham site permit rushed through on an accelerated timeframe. By permitting the new coal ash dump as ‘beneficial fill’ instead of toxic waste, DEQ allows very weak protections.”
“This permit was granted almost overnight after a secret meeting between Duke executives and DEQ officials at the Governor’s mansion,” said Wagner. “We are fed up with the agency’s victimizing communities to fulfill Duke Energy’s desires. Our fight against this permit continues, even as dozens of boxcar loads of ash are dumped in our community each day. The close collaboration between DEQ and Duke Energy lacks any transparency, isn’t based on science, and is shameful. Local residents are deeply concerned. They deserve to be involved and to be a key part of the oversight of this clean-up process, instead of being steamrollered!”
Members of ACT Against Coal Ash also expressed concerns over recent changes in water quality standards which resulted in the rescinding of many do-not-drink orders around coal ash ponds throughout the state.
“After hearing their water was contaminated for a year, then being told it was ‘safe’ for the past two months, why should residents believe that DEQ is sincere about recommending water lines?” asks Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina, a partner group of ACT Against Coal Ash. “Could this just be a play, along with asking for changes in classification in 18 months, so that Duke can get sites ranked ‘low’ and simply cap them in place? It’s time for DEQ to demand that Duke pay for water lines in all communities with contaminated wells, at the same time demanding the cleanups move forward quickly, with no excuses for delay.”
Local environmentalists who have been fighting for a high or intermediate classification for the facility were cautiously optimistic about the final rankings.
“I am really glad that it was not ranked as a low risk, but I am concerned about how they have that 18 month opportunity for law makers to make changes,” said Caroline Rutledge Armijo. “I don’t want Belews to ever be capped in place.”
In a press release issued Wednesday afternoon, Duke Energy warned that the final classifications could cost billions of dollars and argued that the environmental impact, versus capping in place, would be negligible.
“If NCDEQ’s proposed recommendations are allowed to stand, without review and possible adjustments based on additional new information, the state will have chosen the most extreme closure option that will have a significant impact on customer costs and hinder economic development,” argued the company. “In addition, it will cause decades of disruption to communities, all without additional, measurable environmental benefits. Given the scope of work, there is significant risk in meeting excavation deadlines by 2024. We will seek to clarify CAMA within 60 days to help ensure the law is implemented in a way that makes North Carolina a thoughtful leader on this issue.”
Duke claims that scientific and engineering studies have proven that the ash basins are not impacting neighboring wells.
“We also recognize that for some, even that level of scientific rigor, may not provide sufficient assurance that their water is safe,” the company says in its press release. “We are exploring a range of options that give those neighbors peace of mind and will work with local communities and water utilities to begin addressing a myriad of questions on this issue. We believe all of our customers will benefit from this approach because it allows the company to pursue a range of closure options that are safe and cost effective. ‘Low’ rankings are supported by the science and engineering and provide a number of benefits to customers, communities and the environment.”
According to Duke those benefits would include allowing a larger range of closure options, aligning the state with other states proposing capping in place solutions, promoting coal ash recycling and reducing costs to customers.
“Decisions regarding basin rankings will impact our customers and communities for decades,” says the company.
A press release from the DEQ notes that the main risk factors driving the final classifications were dam deficiencies that are currently being repaired, and potential impacts to nearby groundwater. It notes that recent discussions indicate that providing nearby residents permanent alternative water will relieve any future concerns.
“The focus of the coal ash law was to safely close all coal ash ponds in North Carolina,” said Secretary van der Vaart. “The intent was not to set pond closure deadlines based on incomplete information. Making decisions based on incomplete information could lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars when spending millions now would provide equal or better protection. The understanding we have today reflects countless hours of scientific and technical work by both state engineers and Duke Energy as well as thousands of comments by the public.”
According to the DEQ, Duke Energy has submitted a study that evaluates the feasibility of supplying permanent alternative water to nearby residents. The state environmental department will recommend to the General Assembly that the classifications be re-evaluated after the dam safety repairs are made and the utility provides these permanent alternative water sources to nearby well owners.
“Even though that would address the people around the facility, I am still concerned that the ash has a broad impact around the region,” said Armijo.
The proposed classifications will become final in July.
Duke Energy had sought a low risk classification for 25 coal ash facilities in the state, arguing that excavating, instead of capping in place, the sites could have a more dangerous impact on the environment and nearby residents.
Duke estimates that excavating the Belews Creek facility, which contains over 12 million tons of ash, could take between 12 and 24 years and require 651,186 truck trips.
Armijo said she felt the company was trying to inflate its projections to scare people.
“In South Carolina, they started cleaning it up and the groundwater improved and it was under budget and under time,” she said. “I feel like they are very resistant to clean it up in North Carolina and they need to get started.”
She noted that she hoped Duke and the DEQ would work to try to find alternative ways to safely deal with the ash other than simply moving it lined landfill in another community.
“We want them to try to figure out a way to reuse it,” she said. “Could they set up a processing plant there on site and do an encapsulation process? There has to be a better way. Belews Creek is a world class facility owned by the nation’s largest provider. I want to see a world class clean up solution happen there. They could model all coal ash clean ups based on what they do at Belews. This is an opportunity for them to do a great job.”
She said local activists would continue to be involved in the issue, focusing on how to support people living near the power plant.
“Our top priority is figuring out clean water options,” she said.
To get to the best clean up and to meet safe water needs, Armijo says, it’s going to take more than a Coal Ash Management Commission of political appointees.
“It’s going to take truly independent subject matter experts and significant input from impacted communities to get this done right,” she said noting that ACT Against Coal Ash is calling for a “Coal Ash Cleanup Oversight Committee.” They are assembling a list of experts and impacted residents who could make a major difference in ensuring that the cleanups and water supplies are protective of impacted communities.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.