Senate proposes coal ash cleanup; environmentalists unhappy

Senate proposes coal ash cleanup; environmentalists unhappy


by STUART WATSON / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc

Posted on June 16, 2014 at 3:39 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 16 at 5:49 PM

No more coal ash ponds in North Carolina. That would be the result of the new bill in the state senate.

But some environmental lawyers say the bill is even weaker than existing state law.

The bill requires all coal-fired power plants to shift to so-called "dry ash" handling in the next four years.

But environmentalists point out that Duke is doing that anyway.

The bill then calls for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, called DENR, to decide which ponds should be closed and how fast.

But DENR is under federal criminal investigation, and environmentalists don't trust the agency.

The Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake would be a top priority to close.

But if DENR decided a coal ash pond was "low risk", Duke would have up to 15 years to cap it in place - without having to move the ash to a lined landfill.

Environmental groups oppose the "cap in place" plan for any of the coal ash ponds. They say the unlined pits have been repeatedly shown to leak into nearby lakes and streams.

The senate bill would also require Duke Energy to test drinking wells for neighbors up to a half-mile from the Duke boundary. If the wells exceeded groundwater standards for any part of coal ash, Duke would have to provide fresh drinking water for the people and animals that used the well within 30 days.

The Senate bill also sets up a nine-member Coal Ash Commission to oversee regulation.

But environmentalists are concerned that politicians could stack the commission with industry representatives and shut out environmental advocates.

So, while this Senate bill is tougher than the Governor's plan, it's still not tough enough for some environmentalists.

The following is a quick SELC (Southern Environmental Law Center) analysis of Duke Energy’s coal ash bill introduced today in the NC legislature which doesn't require cleanup at 10 dangerous and polluting coal ash sites across North Carolina and leaves vulnerable communities across North Carolina. If you’d like to talk with us about this bill or have any questions, please contact us at or 919-945-7106.

1. This bill does not require a cleanup at 10 dangerous and polluting coal ash sites across North Carolina and does not protect those nearby and downstream communities.  Instead, it hands that decision off to the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, even though DENR has failed NC on coal ash repeatedly and even though DENR's coal ash activities are under criminal grand jury investigation.  There are no specific standards that make DENR require a cleanup at any of the 10 sites across North Carolina.  Then, DENR's decision is reviewed only by a committee of political appointees.  For North Carolinians and their water to be protected, a bill should require cleanup of the coal ash for all communities.

2.  Cap in place and dewatering is not cleanup.  Dewatering means that the polluted coal ash wastewater is drained and  dumped into the neighboring river or lake – like what happened at Cape Fear.  Cap in place means the coal ash is left in the unlined pit in the community, next to a waterway, with some dirt on top, and grass planted on it to keep the threat out of mind. Leaving in place unlined coal ash pits does not stop groundwater contamination from the coal ash.

3. By allowing Duke Energy to operate leaking wastewater treatment lagoons for years to come, the bill allows DENR to give Duke Energy amnesty and to continue polluting from its old, aging coal ash lagoons -- instead of eliminating the pollution by cleaning up the sites.

4. After a moratorium that ends next year, this bill allows unlined dumps for toxic coal ash, labeled structural fill, of up to 100,000 tons at up to 10,000 tons per acre without any groundwater monitoring.  In other words, up to 100,00 tons of coal ash could be stored in unlined holes at 10-acres sites all across North Carolina.  That is two and a half times the amount of coal ash that spilled out of the Dan River lagoons.

5. Even where the bill purports to require a cleanup at the removal sites, where Duke already said it would cleanup, the bill contains loopholes that would let Duke to pollute groundwater by storing the ash unlined at a different landfill or structural fill site.