Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy's self-regulating "research" is flawed

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Extracted from the 2017 4th quarter Executive Summary of the Allen Steam Station:

An update to the 2016 human health and ecological risk assessment was conducted. There is no evidence of unacceptable risk to humans and wildlife at Allen attributed to CCR constituent migration in groundwater from the ash basins. The only evidence of potential unacceptable human related risks estimated in the 2016 risk assessment was under the hypothetical subsistence fisherman scenario due to concentrations of cobalt in fish tissue. This risk assessment update supports that the fisher risks were overestimated based on conservative exposure (it is unlikely subsistence fishermen exist in the area) and modeled fish tissue uptake assumptions (modeled concentrations likely exceed actual fish tissue concentrations if measured), supporting a risk classification of “Low” based upon groundwater related considerations.

This is not research, it's rhetoric, carefully crafted to leave the reader confident there's nothing to worry about. The "cobalt in fish" thing is simply a red herring, if you'll pardon my use of a salt water species to drive home a point. If they reported they'd found nothing at all, people wouldn't believe them. So we get cobalt in fish, that nobody's going to eat anyway. Just an aside: Cobalt concentrations detected in at least three common species have been proven to reduce appetite, subsequently stunting growth in the fish affected. The truth is, there are several other toxins even worse than cobalt leaking from the Allen plant:

One of these contaminants is beryllium, a known carcinogen. A silver-white and lightweight metal, beryllium is commonly found in coal, particularly that sourced from Appalachia. The chemical composition of coal is determined by a region’s geology; coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, for example, has different properties than that in the Eastern US. Variations can occur even within the same coal bed.

(Beryllium is also found in computer motherboards and other electronics, which is why it’s important to keep that equipment out of landfills. It’s also used in the manufacture of golf clubs.)

Beryllium concentrations were detected in some samples as much as nine times the state’s groundwater standard. Arsenic, another carcinogen, was found at eight times the standard.

Selenium, which is also naturally occurring, nonetheless has been linked at high levels to coal ash. Duke University scientists found high levels of selenium in fish tissue in two lakes that received discharges from coal-fired power plants. When eaten, selenium at high levels can harm other aquatic life and birds that feed on it.

The highest level of selenium in a groundwater well near Allen was 1,970 parts per billion. The groundwater standard is 20 ppb.

Duke Energy plays a clever little game with its supposed "third party" research stuff, making the end result a mixed bag of hard data and soft marketing and public relations efforts. In almost all (genuine) scholarly research, the Executive Summary elevates the most important findings so they can be understood and dealt with in a timely fashion. Duke Energy, on the other hand, has a habit of doing the opposite: Burying important data and elevating dubious conclusions. And they've been caught red-handed engaging in this misdirection:

Included in the thousands of pages of documents provided to WBTV by UNCC in response to a public records request was evidence that Duke Energy executives re-wrote portions of a scientific report submitted by Langley.

The report in question was prepared by Langley and entitled “Conceptual Groundwater Modeling for Ash Basic Closure H.B. Robinson Steam Station.” Essentially, Langley was tasked with predicting the impact three different coal ash pond closure options would have on long-term groundwater contamination at the Robinson Steam Station in Darlington, SC.

Emails produced by UNCC show Langley first sent a final copy of the report to executives at Duke on October 16, 2015. But that didn’t stop Duke personnel from making further changes to the documents.

One batch of changes came early on the morning of November 12, 2015.

“Attached are highly suggested edits (in track changes) to the most recent submittal of the GW Model report,” Duke closure engineer Brandon Culberson wrote Langley in an email sent at 7:23 a.m. “Please finalize the report and submit a PDF version of the entire document by 10 am.”

A review of the tracked changes in the attached PDF show Duke personnel deleted sentences, added full paragraphs and made changes to both the executive summary and conclusions section of the report.

This shines a light on what may be the main reason Republicans have chipped away at DEQ over the years, reducing its regulatory staff by some 40%. When you take away the state's ability to conduct research and evaluation, you end up in a situation where you almost have to accept the results given to you by private industry, as flawed and biased as they may be.

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Comments

There are a lot of parallels

between the two, and hopefully that parallel will continue, ending with a couple hundred billion taken from Duke Energy to settle damages.