Duke University scientists found a new way to trace coal ash in soil. (Spoiler alert: It’s found near Lake Norman)

This story has been updated with comments from Duke Energy.

Coal ash particles have been found in soil near two coal-fired power plants: Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman near the Iredell-Catawba county line in North Carolina, and Bull Run Steam Plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, in Clayton, Tenn., scientists announced this week.

The presence of  particles, specifically of fly ash, in soil suggests they originated from the plants, the study says.

Avner Vengosh and Heather Stapleton were among six scientists from Duke University and Appalachian State to conduct the study. The results were published July 20 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Avner Vengosh

Heather Stapleton

Concentrations of toxic elements found in the ash — mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, cadmium, radium — did not exceed human health guidelines for soil.

But “low concentrations of toxic metals in soil does not equal to no risk,” Vengosh, distinguished professor of Environmental Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a press release announcing the study results.

Coal ash was also historically used as structural fill beneath parking lots, roads and on farm land. Last September, a sinkhole developed in a parking lot in Mooresville; the area had been backfilled with 46,000 tons of coal ash, according to state records.

“We need to understand how the presence of fly ash in soils near coal plants could affect the health of people who live there. Even if coal plants in the United States are shutting down or replaced by natural gas, the environmental legacy of coal ash in these areas will remain for decades to come.”

Until this study, testing methods using could not definitively trace certain elements in the soil back to coal ash. The new methods, though, used advanced geochemistry — lead and radium isotopes — to determine coal ash, even at very low levels, was the source.

“Because of the size of these particles, it’s been challenging to detect them and measure how much fly ash has accumulated,” Vengosh said. “Our new methods give us the ability to do that – with high level of certainty.”

In response to the study, a Duke Energy spokesman said, “Our testing extends well beyond air emissions, and decades of scientific monitoring of Lake Norman and the air around Marshall Steam Station demonstrates that residents are well-protected.”

The scientists compared soil known not to contain coal ash with 20 surface soil samples in parks and residential areas in Mooresville, near Lake Norman; most of the samples were collected downwind of the Marshall Steam Station. Low levels of fly ash were found in all of them.

By tracing the chemical fingerprint of these particles, scientists can better understand where the ash came from and where it is.

“It confirms that our new tools perform consistently and, when used together, provide a reliable method for detecting contamination that other tests might miss,” Vengosh said.

This is important not only from an environmental perspective, but also for public health reasons. Ash contains and other toxic elements. People and pets can track fly-ash contaminated soil into private homes from yards and parks; the ash can even show up in house dust.

“It underscores the need to regularly monitor sites in close downwind proximity to a coal-fired power plant, even if levels of contamination are below current safety thresholds. Fly ash accumulates over time, and risks can grow with repeat exposures to playground dust or home dust,” Vengosh said.

Many residents who live near the Marshall Steam Plant are concerned about the number of thyroid cancer cases in two zip codes that include Lake Norman. Here, the rate of that type of cancer is significantly above the state average, according to state Cancer Registry data. State health officials, though, have not identified a cancer cluster there.

Former Mooresville resident Susan Wind, whose teenage daughter had thyroid cancer — she has recovered but the cancer has returned — held several fundraisers for the study. (The National Science Foundation co-funded it.) “This is just the beginning,” Wind said. ” More will continue to come out about the dangers of living among this coal ash. Until the EPA starts putting the health of the people first and not the profits for these companies, we will continue to watch people fall ill in these areas. Denial and deflection can only work for so long.”

Researchers have yet to identify a potential source or sources, but thyroid cancer is linked to radiation exposure. However, radium is also naturally occurring in some soils, so it is important to determine its origin through advanced testing.

Coal-fired power plants are required to install pollution control systems to reduce carbon emissions. If tracer studies find high levels of carbon in the ash, then it could indicate the material was released decades ago, before the formation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act. Lower levels of carbon could signal that the ash is more recent.

The Duke Energy spokesman said electrostatic precipitators have been in place at Marshall Steam Station since the early 1970s; they remove more than 99% of the ash generated from coal combustion. “The addition of flue gas scrubbers in 2006-07 increased this ash capture efficiency to better than 99.7% under continuous testing, in full compliance with the very strict emissions standards designed to protect public health,” he said.

Scientists plan to use the new tracer method to detect fly ash in house dust. “We continue to evaluate the occurrence of coal ash across North Carolina,” Vengosh said. “Hopefully, we will be able to complete the new study in a few months.”

Under court settlement, no coal ash for Colon mine in Lee County

The Colon Mine is five miles north of Sanford; under a recent settlement, the former clay mine will not receive coal ash, as previously permitted. (Map: DEQ)

Coal ash will not be disposed of in a former clay mine in Lee County, according to a settlement between three environmental groups, Charah, Inc., and the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

After a five-year legal battle, Charah has agreed that it would not deposit ash in the Colon mine, five miles north of Sanford, in Lee County. The state had originally permitted Charah to put 8 million tons of coal ash on the 411-acre site.

Debbie Hall and Keely Wood of EnvironmentaLee issued a statement that read in part, “We knew we were on the right side of environmental justice … Winning this five year court case just proves that community involvement and Lee County residents’ voices can and do make a difference.”

Forty-one percent of households in the census block that includes the Colon mine are from a community of color, but is well above the state average of 33%.

The Kentucky-based company had already stopped placing ash in the Brickhaven mine, near Moncure in Chatham County, and that site will be closed as required by the state permit. Brickhaven contains roughly 7.3 million tons of ash in lined cells on 145 acres.

The coal ash originated from Duke Energy’s Sutton and Riverbend plants sites in North Carolina.

Environmental groups were concerned that contaminants from the ash would leach into the groundwater and into drinking water wells. Contaminants have been detected in monitoring wells near Brickhaven, but there is some question on whether it is from the mine or naturally occurring.

This week’s settlement includes requirements for more frequent sampling at Brickhaven and the installation of additional monitoring wells.

The court case has been circuitous, with multiple appeals and a judge reversing her own ruling.

The controversy began in late 2014, when the NC Department of Environmental Quality, under Secretary John Skvarla and then his successor, Donald van der Vaart, began the permitting process for the ash to be placed in the mines as structural fill. That process took just seven months, a comparatively short time for a project of this magnitude, but was conducted under the timelines established in the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA).

CAMA also allows coal ash to be used in mine reclamation.

In May 2016, lawyers for three environmental groups — EnvironmentaLee, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash — argued before Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens-Lassiter that parts of Brickhaven had never been mined. Thus, the ash wasn’t being used as mine “reclamation.”

By permitting Charah to dig up new sites within the mine, the groups argued, DEQ was illegally allowing the company to create small landfills. Those mini-landfills wouldn’t have to comply with stricter solid waste standards.

Judge Lassiter upheld DEQ’s permits, concluding that the facilities were mines, not landfills. Chatham County Superior Court Judge Carl Fox overturned Lassiter’s ruling; the EPA also considered the mines to be landfills under federal coal combustion rules.

DEQ prevailed on appeal, which allowed the material to be deposited in new cells in both Brickhaven and Colon.

In 2019, the environmental groups appealed, and this time Judge Owens-Lassiter reversed her earlier decision and prohibited the company from disposing the ash.

Charah then filed an appeal, but dropped it as part of this week’s settlement.

 

Breaking: Coal ash released after sinkhole collapse in Mooresville

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Coal ash from a structural fill site entered an unnamed stream after a sinkhole formed in Mooresville, state regulators announced today.

The sinkhole was in a parking lot built on top of a coal ash structural fill site off NC Highway 150. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality did not specify which fill site was affected, but state records show a previous sinkhole in a parking lot of the Terry K Smith Highway 150 project.

This site contains 45,833 tons of coal ash, sourced from Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station, located on nearby Lake Norman.

DEQ said in a press release that a stream culvert pipe collapsed under a coal ash structural fill during heavy rains on Thursday, Sept. 17, that caused a previously repaired sinkhole in a parking lot to reopen.

The orange square represents the Terry K Smith Highway 150 project in Mooresville. A sinkhole opened in a parking near Highway 150, which released coal ash from a structural fill site into an unnamed stream. (Map DEQ)

DEQ said it has been monitoring the sinkhole since becoming aware of it during a site inspection in July of 2019. The property owner had previously repaired the sinkhole in 2018 and 2019.

During site visits after the storm, sediment containing coal ash was observed in the stream bed of the unnamed tributary where it emerges south of Highway 150.

DEQ staff collected water quality samples from the stream and is conducting ongoing monitoring. The location is in the area of a state Department of Transportation expansion project, and DEQ has discussed necessary next steps with the property owner and NCDOT.  DEQ also alerted county and state emergency management authorities.

There are dozens of known coal ash structural fill sites in North Carolina, and more that have been reported but not documented.

 

 

Charah appeals judge’s ruling on coal ash disposal in Chatham County

A court case about the practice of burying coal ash in old clay mines is dragging on into its fifth year, raising questions about where Duke will deposit some of its 80 million tons of the material.

Charah/Green Meadow is asking a Mecklenburg Superior Court judge to reverse a decision issued last month by the Office of Administrative Hearings that prohibits coal ash from being deposited in unexcavated areas of old clay mines.

In court documents filed on Dec. 27, Charah attorneys argued that Administrative Law Judge Melissa Lassiter wrongly invalidated state permits that had allowed the company to deposit coal ash in these areas of the old Brickhaven Mine. The 7.2 million tons of ash — encompassing 5.1 million cubic yards — were used as structural fill in both the excavated areas and in new portions of the mine, which is near Moncure in Chatham County.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality had issued the permits to the Kentucky-based company in 2015. The ash came from Duke Energy’s Sutton and Riverbend plants as part of the utility’s full excavation of unlined ash basins. However, Duke Energy is not part of Charah’s lawsuit. DEQ has not filed an appeal.

Lassiter’s ruling also covered the Colon Mine in Lee County, but no ash has been deposited there.

Charah disputed Lassiter’s interpretation of the Coal Ash Management Act. State lawmakers passed CAMA, as it’s known, in 2014, after the Dan River disaster, and amended it in 2016. CAMA was intended to prevent Duke or any public utility from building new — or expanding the existing — unlined coal ash basins or impoundments in North Carolina. Since the structural fill is in a lined cell, and Charah is not a public utility, the company argued that its activities at Brickhaven are not violating the act.

Charah also objected to Lassiter’s analysis of the Brickhaven engineering plans. Lassiter wrote in her ruling that the height of the ash could reach 260 to 320 feet. Charah “failed to justify how the reclaimed land at those heights was a reasonable rehabilitation of the land,” Lassiter wrote.

But that elevation, Charah said, is not above the surface of the ground, but above mean sea level. Although mean sea level varies within the counties, in Sanford it is 358 feet. Moncure lies 217 feet above mean sea level.

The fill sites are lined, although groundwater monitoring from last summer indicated that several contaminants exceeded state standards: barium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, vanadium and total dissolved solids. Known as TDS, total dissolved solids are a general indicator of water quality.

Seven of the eight monitoring wells detected exceedances. Levels of chromium peaked at 17 times the state groundwater standard; cobalt levels were more than six times higher. Vanadium concentrations ranged from 25 to 45 times higher than state standards.

The case began shortly after DEQ issued the permits, in June 2015. Within a month, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump and Environmentalee had filed a contested case with the Office of Administrative Hearings against the NC Department of Environmental Quality over the permits.

The groups argued that since Charah was putting the material in unexcavated areas, those portions of the mine were tantamount to landfills. In that case, the groups said, the unexcavated areas should be considered solid waste landfills, which operate under stricter regulations.

Originally Lassiter dismissed the case. But since then, DEQ, Charah and environmental groups have filed a series of appeals, culminating in the state Appellate Court sending the case back to the OAH. This time, Lassiter reversed herself.

Therese Vick, research director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, told Policy Watch that Duke should not move its ash offsite, but place it instead in above-ground storage on utility property. “Charah needs to leave these communities alone,” she said, adding she’s still waiting for additional information from state regulators. “DEQ needs to answer the questions we’ve asked regarding keeping the Brickhaven permit open, and any proposed permit modifications.”

While the ruling focused on Brickhaven and Colon, it could have far-reaching ramifications in Duke’s massive coal ash cleanup. If unexcavated areas of clay mines are off-limits, that could reduce the available acreage for the utility to place the 80 million tons of ash, required under a recent settlement with state regulators and environmental groups.

 



2019 12 27 BREDL Lee Summons and Petition (Text)

In pivotal decision, judge rules DEQ wrongly issued structural fill permits for coal ash disposal

Excavation of coal ash at Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington, 2015 (Photo: Duke Energy)

Administrative Law Judge Melissa Lassiter on Friday reversed her earlier decision in a coal ash case, ruling that state environmental officials exceeded their authority when they allowed the ash to be disposed in unexcavated areas of the Brickhaven and Colon mines.

The mines are in Moncure, in Chatham County, and in rural Lee County.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality had granted permits on June 5, 2015, to Charah/Green Meadow for the purpose of using coal ash as structural fill. The permits allowed Charah to place the ash in lined cells not only in previously excavated pits, but also on top of land that, although within the mine boundary, was untouched.

EnvironmentaLee and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League had argued that since Charah was putting the material in unexcavated areas, those portions of the mine were tantamount to landfills. In that case, the groups said, the unexcavated areas should be considered solid waste landfills, which operate under stricter regulations.

Lassiter agreed, and voided the permits for areas that excavated after June 6, 2015. Areas excavated before that date are not affected, and the permits are valid.

In addition, the ruling requires DEQ to the modify the mining permits for unexcavated areas. These modifications are to allow for mine reclamation “using other means” than structural fill.

The Kentucky-based company had contracted with Duke Energy to use coal ash from the utility’s Riverbend and Sutton plants as structural fill. However, Duke Energy was not part of the lawsuit.

In its permits, Charah was allowed to deposit the ash as structural fill up to 50 feet high. However, according to court documents, the maximum elevations for the structural fill at Brickhaven ranged from 260 to 294 feet. At Colon, top of the structural fill could have been as high as 330 feet.

The reclaimed areas of the mine could ostensibly be redeveloped or put to other beneficial use. However, given those heights, redevelopment is unlikely. Lassiter wrote in her order that DEQ “failed to justify how reclaimed land at those heights was a ‘reasonable rehabilitation’ of the affected land.” She also questioned whether Charah was merely excavating new areas solely for coal ash disposal and not for “subsequent beneficial use of reclaimed land.”

BREDL organizer Therese Vick praised the decision and admonished the agency for issuing the permits. “DEQ knew what they did was wrong, yet they kept trying to defend the indefensible,” Vick wrote in a press statement. “No community should ever have to go through this again.”

DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard said the agency “is still reviewing the details of the ruling and will determine next steps.”

Charah issued a similar statement, adding that it does not believe “that the decision requires any excavation” of area where the work, not deemed unpermitted, has already been completed. “We do, however, disagree with some aspects of the ruling and are considering our options for proceeding.”

The work is finished at Brickhaven. Lassiter’s decision carries greater implications for the Colon mine because it has not yet received coal ash.  The ruling could also affect future disposal of the ash in the dozens of other old clay mines in the state. Duke Energy is scheduled to file a cleanup proposal for ash pits at six plants by the end of the year. DEQ has ordered those pits be fully excavated, with the ash placed either in landfills onsite or offsite. In separate legal case, Duke Energy has contested DEQ’s order, but no final ruling has been announced.

BREDL’s position on coal ash disposal is that it should be stored above ground, isolated from the environment, on utility company land. However, many communities, such as Mooresville, which is near the Marshall plant, want the ash excavated and hauled away.

The case began in 2015, when the environmental groups filed a contested the state permits. That year Lassiter ruled in favor of DEQ, which had maintained the permits were properly issued. She then dismissed the case.

Environmental groups then appealed to Chatham County Superior Court, where Judge Carl Fox ruled that DEQ had improperly issued permits allowing disposal in newly excavated areas.

In 2018, DEQ argued its case before the NC Court of Appeals, which ruled that both Lassiter and Fox had committed legal errors; the three-judge panel sent the case back to Lassiter.