Energy Report

Controversy Shrouds Coal Ash Cleanup

Date: April 18, 2016

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By Elizabeth E. Payne

In March, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality held a series of 15 public hearings across the state to solicit stakeholder comments on the classifications for the 33 coal ash impoundments located at Duke Energy’s 14 coal-fired power plants.

These classifications — low, intermediate and high — are used by NCDEQ to assess the risk of each site and determine the timetable and minimum standards that the cleanup process will follow.

At the hearings, area citizens were able to speak with NCDEQ staff about their concerns with the cleanup process. Many urged the agency to rank their community as intermediate or high priority.

“We drank the water, ate the food in that soil,” said Leslie Brewer, who raised her family near the Belews Steam Station coal ash pond in Danbury, N.C. “Please make this high priority, my children don’t have another ten years to wait until this is cleaned up.”

Read more about the hearings here.

These hearings were required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act, which also established the Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the process amid an atmosphere of public distrust. Following legal challenges reaching the state’s Supreme Court, Gov. Pat McCrory disbanded the nine-member commission in mid-March.

The act tasked the commission with ensuring that NCDEQ’s classifications accurately reflected the level of risk posed by each site, and allowed them 60 days to review and comment on the classifications. Whether a new commission will be appointed in time to provide oversight is unclear.

The same week that the commission was disbanded, staff members from the NCDEQ and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services lifted the do-not-drink warnings from households near coal ash ponds whose wells had been contaminated by hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

The agencies lifted the ban on water containing levels of hexavalent chromium exceeding the state standard of 0.07 parts per billion. Citing federal standards of 100 parts for billion for total chromium, Tom Reeder, the state’s assistant secretary for the environment, argued that the previous standards had been overly cautious. There is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen.

Duke Energy, which denies responsibility for the contamination, will soon stop providing bottled drinking water to the affected households.

In other news, two groups have dropped their complaints against Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to release wastewater from coal ash ponds at two of its power plants into the Quantico Creek, which feeds into the Potomac and James rivers. After Dominion announced that it would adopt stricter standards for treating the wastewater than were required by the Virginia DEQ, the Prince William County, Va., board of supervisors and the James River Association agreed to stop fighting the plan, according to the Bay Journal.

Other groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the state of Maryland, will continue to appeal Dominion’s discharge permit.

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