Environment

Duke Energy settles with 33 property owners over Dan River coal ash disaster

 

Tom Augspurger of the US Fish and Wildlife Service taking core sample after the Dan River coal ash spill. (l-r) Augsperger, John Fridell, USFWS, and Rick Smith, Duke Energy. Photo by Steve Alexander, USFWS.

Wanda Overby used to take her grandson to play along the Dan River almost every day — until Feb. 2, 2014, when a coal ash pond breached, releasing 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of toxic contamination into the waterway. “After the spill, we went down there and saw the sludge,” and has been back to the river only once — and had to wear knee boots — Overby said, according to court documents. “I’m sad when I think of all memories he’ll never have. That’s really the main thing that’s been taken from us.”

Overby is one of 33 property owners along the Dan River who have settled with Duke Energy over damages from the environmental disaster: diminished property values and loss of their use and enjoyment of their land.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. The plaintiffs were represented by Bryan Brice, whose law firm is based in Raleigh.

“The despoliation of the Dan River as a result of Duke’s negligence caused significant hardship for these 33 individuals and their families,” Brice said in a prepared statement. “It was a tragedy that should have never occurred.”

A Duke spokesperson also issued a statement: “Years of scientific research demonstrates that the Dan River environment, ecosystem and neighboring agricultural lands were not impacted by the 2014 incident and recreational enjoyment of the river and surrounding area continues to grow, so we are pleased to put this issue behind us.”

Although Duke Energy is excavating or has excavated coal ash from impoundments at eight of its North Carolina plants, the utility wants to leave the material in unlined pits at six: Belews Creek Roxboro, Mayo, Marshall, Allen and Rogers/Cliffside.

Duke says it will cap the impoundments to prevent water from entering the impoundments, but that does not solve the groundwater problems that can result from unlined facilities. Monitoring data shows that more than 90 percent of coal ash impoundments nationwide leak; federally mandated monitoring results show that all of them in North Carolina do.

“This settlement also puts Duke Energy on notice to act responsibly to protect the environment and take all necessary steps to ensure that these types of incidents do not occur again,” Brice said. “There are many other coal ash ponds in our state and across the country where proper closure and removal of coal ash must occur to protect all downstream property owners and the rivers upon which they live.”

 

Environment

Got something to say about coal ash? This is your week to share that input.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is accepting public comment through Friday (February 15th) on how Duke Energy should handle the storage of its coal ash.

Duke Energy has proposed leaving the coal ash at six unlined pits, but environmental groups say it will keep polluting groundwater, lakes, and rivers.

Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center says Duke should be required to excavate the remaining ash as it has done at eight other sites in North Carolina and all of its sites in South Carolina.

Click below to listen to our recent interview with Holleman:

To learn more about Duke Energy’s progress on closing the ash basins, click here.

Image: Appalachian Voices

To comment on the Allen Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: allencomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Belews Creek Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: belewscomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Marshall Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: marshallcomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Mayo Power Station coal ash cleanup, email: mayocomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Rogers Complex coal ash cleanup (formerly Cliffside), email: rogerscomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Roxboro Steam Plant coal ash cleanup, email: roxborocomments@ncdenr.gov

Environment

In Wilmington, a public hearing on coal ash and the Sutton plant drew just four people

Flood waters from Sutton Lake are surrounding Duke Energy’s natural gas plant there, forcing the utility to temporarily shut it down. Hurricane Florence also caused a release of coal ash from a landfill under construction at the Sutton site.(Photo: Duke Energy)

A public hearing about Duke Energy’s request to extend a deadline to close the coal ash impoundments at its Sutton plant lasted less than 15 minutes, and just four people attended.

And now it’s possible that cleanup work at the Sutton plant will be conducted during yet another hurricane season.

Citing unexpected weather and permitting delays, Duke asked the NC Department of Environmental Quality to grant a variance to the original closure plan for Sutton. The utility had agreed to remove millions of tons of coal ash from unlined impoundments, shipping about 2 million tons to the Brickhaven mine in Chatham County, with the rest being deposited in a new lined landfill onsite. The current deadline is August 2019; Duke Energy has asked for an extra six months, to February 2020.

DEQ has countered with a different proposal of a three-to-six month extension, which at the earliest would set a deadline of November 2019, still after the height of hurricane season.

In its letter to DEQ, Duke Energy said it was on track to meet the deadline until April 2016. That’s when the state announced a new policy at a town hall meeting sponsored by the NC Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights. DEQ declared that it would go “beyond state and federal requirements” by conducting an environmental justice review of each coal ash landfill, the letter read. The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, the civil rights commission and the state advisory committee would have to review and approve that analysis before further permits could be issued.

That review resulted in a six-month delay, Duke said, which was compounded later in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew hit in October. Other buffer requirements, the unexpected discovery of old cypress stumps in the ash basins — which slowed the dredging process — and Hurricane Florence all set the project back, Duke said.

While most of these delays are understandable, the extension deadline could potentially expose the remaining ash to severe storms and hurricanes next summer and fall. During Hurricane Florence, coal ash was released from a landfill under construction. There is a disagreement between environmental watchdogs and the utility about whether that harmed water quality in Sutton Lake.

There is still time to comment on Duke’s request. Written comments on the request for variance can be sent to the attention of Ellen Lorscheider, 1646 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N C 27699-1646.

Comments may also be submitted by email to publiccomments@ncdenr.gov. Please include the term “Sutton Variance Request” in the email’s subject line. The deadline for submitting comments is Feb. 4, 2019.

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, hog lagoons and a wayward EPA

Rainfall from Hurricane Florence overlaid with the locations of industrialized livestock operations. (Map: Environmental Working Group)

Good morning, before I delve into the weekly recap of Contamination’s Greatest Hits, I want to tell you what I just heard at the NC Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business conference this morning.

Ray Starling, who used to be with the NC Department of Agriculture, is now chief of staff at the USDA. One day, Starling said, he was in the Oval Office visiting with President Trump. “On the president’s desk was a box made of wood with the presidential seal on one side and it had a red button. The president pushes the red button. I thought the floor was going to open up in front of me and I would fall through it. I was fairly certain some country had been blown off the map.”

Instead, Starling said, “moments later a man entered the Oval Office carrying a silver platter” with a Diet Coke for the president.

And now you know.

First up, a perennial favorite since 2014: Coal ash. Sampling by Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr near the inactive coal ash basins at the HF Lee plant, showed arsenic levels in the Neuse River, the drinking water source for Goldsboro, at 186 parts per million, far above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Near the Sutton plant, whose lake drains into the beleaguered Cape Fear River, also a major drinking water supply, the results were an off-the-charts 710 ppm.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environmental Quality each did its own testing near both HF Lee and Sutton. DEQ found elevated levels of copper near Sutton, but both the agency’s and the utility’s samples indicated arsenic contamination was below drinking water standards there and at HF Lee.

How can these results be so contradictory — one set menacing and the other hunky-dory? Well, the variations can hinge on several factors: where and when the samples were taken, and how far into the water column — in other words, how deep the samplers plunged the bottle. Sediment, aka dirt in the riverbed, would be even more telling, because the contaminants might have nestled there. But sediment rarely stays put. Boats, storms, wind can all stir it up, sending contamination downstream.

DEQ and Duke, and the riverkeepers, will continue to monitor potential contamination in the rivers.

Speaking of coal, the EPA (rechristened for the purposes of this column as Experiencing Peak Apocalypse) plans to roll back mercury emissions rules for coal-fired power plants. Mercury, also known in 14th-century parlance as quicksilver, is not an element to be messed with. (Nonetheless, in eighth-grade science class, we entertained ourselves by goosing globules of it on our desks. This occurred in the dark ages of 1978, when trepanation may have still been in vogue in my small town.)

Historically, coal-fired power plants have been major emitters of mercury. When the mercury falls back to the Earth and enters water, it converts to methylmercury. Fish take up methylmercury, and when people eat fish, they also get a dose. Mercury can harm the nervous system, including that of a developing fetus, which is why pregnant women are advised to restrict their intake of certain mercury-prone species, such as tuna. There are fish advisories for mercury contamination in waterways throughout North Carolina for everyone.

Who thinks weakening mercury rules is a good idea? The New York Times breaks down the issue, but essentially the EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, reasons that the cost to industry to adhere to the rule is greater than the public health costs if the rule is rolled back. I’d like to see the math on that, right after I cough up this lung. Nonetheless, the score is Industry 1, Health Benefits 0.

Also lurking in the post-Hurricane Florence waters of eastern North Carolina is millions of gallons of hog and poultry waste. Policy Watch reported this week on the many farms that still lie within the 100-year flood plain. The.Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a set of maps overlapping historic rainfall amounts with the density of these industrialized operations. The EWG’s spatial analysis concluded that “there are 926  concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, housing more than 3.8 million hogs and 578 poultry CAFOs holding an estimated 35 million fowl in areas where the National Weather Service said flooding was ‘occurring or imminent’ after Florence.”

Hog farms often receive the most attention, unlike poultry farms, which escape necessary scrutiny because they are virtually unregulated. These farms that use “dry litter” (which no longer stays dry in a flood) aren’t required to have a permit. We don’t know where they are or who might have complained about them.

On the issue of hog farms, the Waterkeeper Alliance is suing the EPA over exemptions bestowed upon these industrialized  operations. Unlike many other polluting industries, these farms aren’t required to inform state and local officials about dangerous levels of pollutants that could be emanating from the operations.. For many industries, these disclosures are required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. However, the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act gives the livestock industries a pass on reporting air emissions — ammonia, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter — that can exacerbate respiratory illness of those living near the farms.

Living near these concentrated animal feeding operations might shorten your lifespan, according to a September article published by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko and four of her colleagues in the NC Medical Journal.

The study concluded that North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/emergency room visits of low-birth weight infants.”

The study doesn’t go so far as to establish causality with exposures from hog CAFOs, but the authors write that future studies are needed to “determine factors that influence these outcomes, as well as the need to improve screening and diagnostic strategies for these diseases in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs.”

Given these findings, it was disheartening to hear Dennis Kelly of Syngenta tell the agribusiness crowd this morning that one of the greatest concerns of farmers is “security — knowing you won’t be sued. That you have the right to farm according to normal agriculture practices.”

Somebody, please push the red button. No, the other one, where I get to fall through the floor.

Environment

Duke Energy reporting another coal ash breach at Sutton; shuts down nat gas plant

Flood waters from Sutton Lake are surrounding Duke Energy’s natural gas plant there, forcing the utility to temporarily shut it down. (Photo: Duke Energy)

The Cape Fear River has overtopped a dam at Sutton Lake in Wilmington, sending coal ash into the water body from the 1971 ash basin. The lake provides cooling water for Duke Energy’s Sutton plant.

According to the utility, cenospheres, which are coal combustion byproducts, are moving from that basin into the lake and onto the Cape Fear River. Cenospheres are lightweight hollow beads that can contain not only silica and aluminum, but also arsenic and lead.

The second coal ash basin, built in 1984, is stable and has not been affected, the utility said. The lined ash landfill, which suffered two breaches in its slope last weekend, is not affected by the lake water. The landfill is being repaired.

Meanwhile, lake water has surrounded the natural gas plant at the Sutton site, requiring personnel to shut it down.

Duke Energy had previously shut down both reactors at its Brunswick County nuclear plant, but only one remains offline as of today. The second unit is operating at 69 percent, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.