Dust-up between DEQ, advocates over environmental justice analysis at HF Lee plant; comment period ends today

The HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, as the smokestacks are being demolished. The plant has been retired, but four ash impoundments remain onsite. That ash could be processed for beneficial use at a new operation at the facility. (Photo: Duke Energy)

An environmental group is criticizing state regulators for failing to release an environmental justice analysis on a fly ash project at Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant before the public comment period closes.

Duke Energy wants to process fly ash for beneficial uses, including an ingredient in cement, at its Lee plant, at 1199 Black Jack Church Road in Goldsboro. The facility will require an air permit; the draft application is available online. The public comment period ends at 5 p.m. today. Interested persons can submit written comments via email to Ed.Martin@ncdenr.gov

“We have not finalized or released the environmental justice report because our process is to review the public comments and incorporate those into the final environmental justice analysis,” said DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin. “However, based on the public feedback this week, we are looking at a change going forward, with the release of a snapshot of EJ information during the public comment period, with the final report after.”

Therese Vick, community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, told Policy Watch that DEQ had informed her the analysis would be available in time for the public hearing, held earlier this week. “Their denial to extend the public comment period gives the community no opportunity to review or provide input on the report before a decision on the permit is made.”

DEQ conducted a similar assessment for a proposed fly ash project at Duke Energy’s Buck plant in Salisbury. That analysis was released on April 13; the public comment period ended on April 10.

The facility will process up to 400,000 tons of wet or dry fly ash annually. Duke Energy is using scrubbers and other advanced technologies to reduce air emissions. However, the operation won’t be emissions-free. Each year, Duke could emit more than 59 tons of very small particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, which can harm the respiratory system, especially of vulnerable people. Other annual potential emissions include 116,000 tons of greenhouse gases, 98 tons of sulfur dioxide, as well as smaller amounts of toxic air pollutants benzene, arsenic and chromium 6.

DEQ uses several publicly available tools to conduct environmental justice analyses, including the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen and census data. That information can help DEQ determine whether a proposed permit or project disproportionately impacts communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

According to the EJ screen, per capita income for people living within two miles of the Lee plant is $17,847 per year. That’s less than Goldsboro’s per capita income of $19,243, according to 2016 census data — and far less than the state average of $26,779. Using this data, regulators could decide that low-income communities would bear the pollution burden of the facility.

Two-thirds of people living in that area are white, according to the EJ screen, while 55 percent of Goldsboro’s population is Black.

However, data tells only part of the story. It’s equally important to canvass the area — to gather “ground truth” — to determine, for example, if the majority of people living closest to the plant are from communities of color. Age, disability status and health information of these areas can also factor into an analysis.

Environmental justice is a primary focus of both Secretary of the Environment Michael Regan, who is from Goldsboro, and Gov. Roy Cooper. DEQ’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board held its inaugural meeting earlier this week. At that meeting, the agency acknowledged that it had not always succeeded at adequately communicating with the public. Last month, DEQ hired a bilingual public engagement liaison, Carolina Fonseca Jimenez, to help the agency with outreach, especially in rural communities.

The Lee and Buck facilities are two of three fly ash beneficiation projects in North Carolina. The other is  Cape Fear plant in Moncure, in Chatham County. These operations are mandated by a 2016 state law that amended the Coal Ash Management Act. The law requires the impoundment owner to identify three ash impoundment sites in North Carolina that could be suitable for a beneficial reuse facility.

The Lee plant, a retired coal-fired facility, has four ash ponds.

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