Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy agrees to pay fines for leaky basins

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But their solution for stopping the leaks may be worse than the leaks themselves:

The country's largest electricity company will pay an $84,000 penalty and work to stop potentially toxic waste from three North Carolina coal-burning power plants from leaking into groundwater and nearby rivers under a deal with state regulators announced Tuesday.

The deal, already signed by a Duke Energy Corp. executive, includes the penalty for nearly two dozen leaky spots detected at coal ash pits at the Rogers, Allen and Marshall power plants before 2015. The agreement acknowledges the leaks from unlined, earthen holding basins at the power plants into the adjoining Catawba and Broad rivers, a violation of pollution laws.

Here's the proposed consent order itself, which is in a pdf format that does not allow copy-and-paste so you'll have to go and read the thing. While this does represent some progress, there are also some trade-offs in there with which I am not happy. The first (and least of my concerns) is that after this agreement is signed and agreed to, those toxic leaks will fall under the category of "permitted" discharges. Meaning, if their future fixes don't work like they think they will, it will be a lot harder to punish Duke Energy for the continued contamination. But it's really the fix itself that has me worried:

In March 2016, North Carolina environmental regulators issued violation notices for 12 of the company's 14 current or former coal-burning power plants because tainted water from the pits had polluted nearby waterways.

Similar deals are in the works for leaking basins at the eight power plant sites not yet addressed, state environmental agency spokesman Jamie Kritzer said.

Tuesday's agreement, which must still go through a state approval process, calls for Duke Energy to draw water off the surface of the open air basins at the three plants by 2019 in hopes of reducing or eliminating the leaks.

Bolding mine. Quick question: What do you think that "draw water" means? Does this statement tell you where it's going after being "drawn"? No, it doesn't. This is basic hydrology; the more volume of water on the top, the more pressure to escape the unlined earthen dams down below. I get that. But it's the confusing terminology that pisses me off, and the likelihood that most of the general public will not understand what is actually going to happen. In order to test my own argument skills (I really want to know if I conveyed my concerns clearly), here is the comment I sent yesterday to DEQ:

There needs to be a better explanation of the "decanting" process authorized in this consent order to Duke Energy, specifically making sure the public is aware that likely tainted water will be directly pumped into lakes and rivers/streams.

If, on the other hand, this water is going to be treated (somehow) before being released, that should also be explained in the consent order. But I've read it three times and see no evidence of that.

Just a grammar-related side note: The term "decanting" usually refers to moving a liquid from one container to another. Like pouring part of a bottle of wine into a carafe. Something can be technically accurate and yet still misleading, especially to the general population. And if Duke Energy is going to "decant" this water directly into our water resources with no treatment, this is one of those misleading cases.

Is that clear enough? After about 3 hours of exhaustive research, including reading that entire consent order 3-4 times, I believe Duke Energy is going to pump that surface water from the coal ash ponds directly into lakes and rivers. Coal ash particulates come in various sizes, and the fly ash (super fine particulates) will not sink down to the relatively solid bottom, it will remain dispersed in the water. And fly ash usually contains some of the nastier toxins that remain after combustion.

In other words, Duke Energy's "solution" to this leaking problem very well may cause more contamination in a short period of time than ten years of seeps would.

It may be the best (or only) way to deal with this problem, but it needs to be debated vigorously, and all other options looked at. Options like at least attempting to filter that surface water before just dumping it into our precious water resources.

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Just me speculating...

I first caught wind of this yesterday, when I saw this Tweet:

If you'll notice, that "take water" reference is there as well. But it's only half of the action, you know? I believe that choice of words was intentional, to hide or call attention away from the fact they're going to pump/drain that tainted water into the very thing they're supposedly trying to protect.

I even mentioned that to Nick (Ochsner) in a Twitter comment, telling him of my concerns about *where* the water will go, and the possibility it would be dumped right into the river. And yet, hours later he wrote up this story:

Specifically, Duke and NCEMC agreed that the company would decant the coal ash basins at the Allen, Marshall and Cliffside power plants.

The consent order released by DEQ defines decanting as the “removal of the free water on the surface of the coal ash basins.”

The order says the process “is expected to substantially reduce or eliminate the seeps” that had been previously identified.

A schedule included in the consent order says decanting at the three plants’ ash ponds must start by various dates in 2019. The decanting much be finished my March 2020 at Cliffside, June 2020 at Allen and March 2021 at Marshall.

Permits for the decanting will be issued by DEQ, which will also monitor compliance with the agreement, according to the consent order.

Not a word about where that water will go, the second half of the action taking place. We need to know that second half.