Duke Energy

Coal Ash Wednesday: Chatham County ash pit leaking dangerous toxins

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Charah needs to answer some questions like yesterday:

State regulators have asked the operator of a Chatham County landfill where coal ash is being stored to come up with a plan to address high levels of toxic elements found in nearby water. The Brickhaven site near Moncure is a former clay mine that the state Department of Environmental Quality approved four years ago to be used as a lined landfill for coal ash being moved from unlined pits at Duke Energy power plants.

DEQ's Division of Waste Management sent a letter to Brickhaven operator Charah Inc. on Friday, noting that levels of barium, chloride, chromium, cobalt and vanadium were found at levels higher than state standards in various groundwater monitoring wells over time. In addition, high levels of arsenic, cobalt, copper, lead and zinc were found in nearby surface water.

In theory, the clay located at this particular site should have provided a good impermeable layer to block seepage. But generally speaking, when a mine is "played out," there's not enough (of whatever it is) left over to continue operating. Whatever the case, this just drives home the message that bottom liners are the only way to ensure leachate doesn't get into the groundwater. But thanks to decades of criminal negligence by coal plant operators, only 5% of the nation's ash pits have those liners:

Coal Ash Wednesday: A history of chronic spillage at Sutton Lake

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As usual, sedimentary deposits tell the tale:

"Our results clearly indicate the presence of coal ash at the bottom of Sutton Lake and suggest there have been multiple coal ash spills into the lake from adjacent coal ash storage facilities after, and even before, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence caused major flooding in 2018," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the research.

According to Vengosh and his colleagues from Duke and Appalachian State University, the amount of contaminants was more than what was found in streams following major coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 and the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014.

Of course Duke Energy is spouting denials and rationalizations left and right, but Avner knows his stuff. This isn't an environmental advocacy org speaking, it's pure science:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke would cap the #2 worst contaminating site in the nation

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Their judgment simply cannot be trusted:

A new environmental report points to a threat to ground water in 39 states, including a local facility as the second worst in the nation. The report confirms the worries people living near Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station have been concerned about for years.

The report claims coal ash dumps in Belmont are leaking cobalt into groundwater, more than 500 times above safe levels, along with other pollutants. Exposure to cobalt can cause thyroid damage.

It can also lead to cardiomyopathy and blood thickening, which are even worse than they sound. Throw Arsenic into that cocktail, and you've got a drink that's definitely not recommended by doctors. But the real moral to this story: This is one of the sites that Duke Energy has decided could be capped in place safely, and is now suing DEQ to block its ruling to excavate it. From the report itself:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke hints at massive rate increases over excavation order

This song is getting painfully old:

In its statement, Duke Energy said excavating the final nine pits would add about “$4 billion to $5 billion to the current estimate of $5.6 billion for the Carolinas.” The company warned that excavation at some sites could take decades, stretching well beyond current state and federal deadlines. It also said excavation would cost significantly more than it would to cap the coal ash under a heavy cover and soil.

Holleman said the company “greatly exaggerates” its cost estimates without taking into account the damage it has caused to the environment and to people’s health. He said the company also underestimates the cost it would incur if it simply drained and capped coal ash in the unlined pits.

Had a conversation (that turned into an argument) recently with a man trying to defend Duke Energy's history of coal ash storage. "Science has come a long way since then" was the major thrust of his argument, trying to give the utility an "out" for not using liners in their coal ash pits. Of course that's not true, because solid waste engineers have known since the late 1960's that toxins can leach into the groundwater from unlined landfills. And of course Duke Energy knew this too, but they were more concerned with returning healthy quarterly dividends than being good stewards of the environment. But hopefully they will soon find out that having us pay for their mistakes won't be as easy as it has been:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Denial is a river in Egypt

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Duke Energy does not like new report on Allen Steam Station:

At the Allen plant on Lake Wylie, coal ash storage sites have polluted groundwater with nine contaminants, including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, at levels exceeding federal safety standards, the report said. The findings, released by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, are based on data that became publicly available for the first time last year because of federal regulations.

Charlotte-based Duke pushed back on the findings, accusing the environmental groups of cherry-picking data in an attempt to advance a misleading narrative and extreme agenda.

If by "cherry-picking" you mean highlighting important data points so they won't get lost in the noise, then yes:

Virginia provides a template for NC on coal ash cleanup

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And it includes making cap-in-place schemes illegal:

The plan would require Dominion to excavate toxic coal ash from unlined and leaky storage ponds along the James, Elizabeth and Potomac rivers and recycle at least 25 percent to “beneficial use” as bricks or concrete, and store the rest in permitted, lined landfills. The plan aims to limit the amount of removal costs passed on to ratepayers, who eventually would pay about $5 more a month, lawmakers said.

Two years ago, lawmakers imposed a moratorium on an approved closure method called “cap-in-place” and directed Dominion to explore alternatives. Cap-in-place has been criticized as inadequate.

Because it *is* inadequate. With no bottom barrier, groundwater seeps in, and then carries contaminants straight down and into rivers and lakes. Each location has individual characteristics that make cap-in-place either somewhat risky or downright crazy, and as SELC has learned in Georgia, utilities simply can't be trusted to judge the difference:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy's "cap in place" proposal backed by rate hike scare

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Taking passive-aggressive bullying to a whole new level:

The proposal is likely to win few friends among environmentalists who want to see all of the Belews Creek plant’s 12 million tons of coal ash dug out of the basin and reburied in a lined landfill.

But Duke Energy says the new alternative makes more sense because it requires less disruptive excavation and carries a significantly lower price tag for the utility’s North Carolina customers, who ultimately will bear the cost of coal ash disposal in their power bills.

Bolding mine, because that is not a foregone conclusion, and the author should know that. All rate increases must be approved by the NC Utilities Commission, and Duke Energy has had several of their requests reduced substantially in the last 2-3 years. That being said, the NCUC should have taken a harder stance on this, and refused *any* increases associated with Duke's previous irresponsible activities. It's their compromises allowing some increases that have led to a situation where the utility can raise such a threat as above, so they can do a half-ass job sweeping coal ash under the rug. Just covering up a coal ash impoundment that does not have a bottom liner may actually increase the amount of Arsenic that leaks out:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Here come the sludge

And this will be fouling the Neuse River for a long time to come:

Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee power plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong. “There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying on the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation. Cenospheres, hollow balls of silica and aluminum that are coal ash byproducts, were floating on the water. But cenospheres are not entirely innocuous; they often contain arsenic and lead, just like the coal they came from.

This is one of the coal ash sites Duke Energy was ordered to relocate, but in late 2016 they sought for and received approval to recycle that ash instead. In other words, it shouldn't have been there to leak out. At least not in the volume it did. But of course that "volume" is hard to quantify, since we can't trust Duke Energy to be honest about its reporting:

Dam collapses at Duke Energy coal ash impoundment

Sometimes I really hate when my predictions come true:

Torrential rain from Hurricane Florence caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington. The utility reported about 2,000 cubic yards of material, including ash, was displaced. For context, the average commercial dump truck holds about 10-14 cubic yards, meaning the amount of displaced material at Sutton was equivalent to 142 dump truck loads.

It’s unclear if the rains carried any coal ash beyond the landfill and into the lake — and if so, how much. The landfill, which is lined, is designed to hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells. The utility notified state environmental regulators of the slope failure.

Hat-tip to Lisa Sorg and Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette for keeping us informed on this. Kemp was going to do an on-site (or as close as he could get) inspection yesterday, so hopefully we'll have an accurate photo to go with this story. Here's an update from Kemp:

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