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.”

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Once planned for North Carolina, Active Energy’s wood pellet experiment in Maine hits a snag

Source: Active Energy investor chat webinar

Active Energy, the company behind a controversial wood pellet plant in Lumberton, has produced only a fraction of the amount it promised to deliver from a quickly assembled operation in Maine.

Because of delays in North Carolina, Active Energy in early June began a trial run of of CoalSwitch pellets in Ashland. The company was on a contractual deadline to deliver 900 to 1,000 tons of pellets to PacifiCorp, which plans to burn them at its Hunter Power plant in Utah, according to company correspondence with investors.

So far that’s not gone well. Eric Kennedy, director of licensing and compliance with Maine’s Bureau of Air Quality, said that during the trial period the company has produced only about eight tons of pellets that it had promised to PacifiCorp.

In response to questions from Policy Watch, an Active Energy spokesman said via email that “Active Energy Group will not be making any comments at this time.”

Nonetheless, in a video message to investors in June, Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan said the company had made the “first deliveries” of CoalSwitch pellets to PacificCorp, but did not specify amounts.

In Maine, the CoalSwitch technology had been added to a recently permitted log extruding plant owned by Player Design. The company, which is also Active Energy’s engineering consultant in North Carolina, manufacturers fireplace logs. The facility is smaller than the one under construction in Lumberton, according to a description of the project provided to Maine environmental regulators.

Environmental regulators in Maine had originally scheduled the temporary air permit to expire on July 31. The company has requested an extension of the trial period through Sept. 29, which the Maine Bureau of Air Quality has granted, Kennedy said.

Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan told investors in a letter on May 20 that the company hopes the Maine facility will be a second CoalSwitch plant, and eventually receive approval to produce up to 35,000 tons of pellets per year.

The company has heralded CoalSwitch wood pellets as a game changer for utilities. The patented technology creates a pellet that can burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat. Utilities that use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the manufacturing process uses steam to explode the pellets to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner than coal.

However, the pellet production process itself can emit tons carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants. Kennedy said Maine regulators don’t yet have emissions data from the trial period, but expect to after it concludes. This data could be instructive for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which has questioned the accuracy of the company’s most recent emissions estimates.

Source: Active Energy Group investor webinar

DEQ granted Active Energy an air permit last year, over strenuous public objections and concerns about public health and the environment. Shortly afterward, the company began tinkering with the technology, ostensibly to reduce potential emissions. Instead, the changes appear to increase them. DEQ issued a Notice of Violation to Active Energy on May 5  for construction new equipment and changing the process design without state approval.

When Active Energy announced in May that it would manufacture wood pellets in Maine, conservative lawmakers were quoted in the Carolina Journal blaming, without evidence, the NC Department of Environmental Quality for the company’s decision. Active Energy still owns the Lumberton plant, but has not produced pellets there.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Zaynab Nasif said in May that the company’s amended application, filed in late April, “appears to indicate an increase in potential emissions due to these control and process modifications. The department has also found inconsistencies in the emissions estimates.”

The most significant upticks are for carbon monoxide, the emissions of which are projected to increase 104%, from 7.9 tons per year to just over 16 tons. Particulate matter — essentially fine dust — would increase dramatically from 0.1 tons per year to 26.7 tons, according to the permit applications. Hazardous air pollutants, classified by the EPA as those that can cause cancer and other serious health problems, also increased: 6,263 pounds a year, up from 4,963 pounds.

The Division of Air Quality asked Active Energy for more information. However, Nasif told Policy Watch today that the department has not received any updates since May 21, including any information regarding testing in Maine.

Active Energy was running a sawmill at the Lumberton facility, but that operation is also in doubt. “We’ve ceased saw log exports from Lumberton because it doesn’t fit our ethos with what we’re trying to achieve,” Rowan said in the investor presentation. “We’ve kept the sawmill under review. We have produced the feedstock for future activities.”

The company had been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Department of Commerce to upfit the old Alamac Knits factory in Lumberton. The grant was contingent on meeting job creation benchmarks of 40 to 50 full-time positions. As of March, the Commerce Department had yet to deliver the funds to Robeson County, the pass-through agency, because the paperwork had not yet been completed.

Controversial energy legislation narrowly passes NC House despite widespread opposition

Among the many unsupported, if downright bizarre, statements uttered about House Bill 951, Rep. Larry Pittman’s bested them all. 

Solar farms, he announced on the House floor yesterday, make deer meat inedible.

“I’ve been told if deer eat vegetation around these things the meat might not be fit for human consumption,” Pittman (R-Cabarrus) said on the House floor yesterday, in opposition to House Bill 951.

Rep. Larry Pittman: Concerned about solar panels’ effect on venison (Photo: NCGA)

While folklore and falsehoods aren’t the best bases for policymaking, a ‘no’ vote is a ‘no’ vote, and bill opponents needed every one they could muster.

Known in some corners as the “Super Secret Energy Bill” for the covert way in which it was crafted, the measure, is opposed by the state’s major manufacturers and industries, businesses, environmental groups, and public-interest organizations.  

“Almost every single stakeholder is opposed to this bill,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) on the House floor yesterday.

Across-the board rate hikes

Drafted with outsized input by Duke Energy, it’s a complex and technical bill, 48 pages long with a 17-page summary. It could change the arc of the state’s energy policy for at least a decade. 

Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) acknowledged in a previous committee meeting that he wasn’t even sure he understood it all — not usually what you want to hear from a bill’s co-sponsor.

But the meat-and-potatoes reason for the opposition — the kind of blowback that politicians hear about on the campaign trail — is that the bill would result in higher electricity rates.

The 1.3 million Duke Energy Progress residential customers would pay a cumulative increase of $11 to $18 in monthly bills by 2030 and 2035, respectively, according to an analysis by the Public Staff of the NC Utilities Commission. This is based on a usage of 1,000 kilowatt hours per month; if you have a poorly insulated home, or a large house, your bills could be even higher.

Another 1.9 million Duke Energy Carolinas residential customers would pay an extra $12 to $24 each month by those dates.

Over the same time period, industrial and commercial customers would see cumulative increases ranging from 11% to 31% depending on which service territory they’re located in.

“There is the potential for a massive rate increase,” said Harrison, noting that for low-income North Carolinians, “this will be a hard hit for them.”

(“Securitization,” essentially low-interest bonds, would help pay off about half the value, $500 million, of Duke coal plants as they retire. This ends up saving ratepayers money; otherwise the costs of retirement would increase monthly bills even more.)

Boosting Duke’s power

The bill contains other more subtle, power grabs. 

Bill co-sponsor, Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), for instance, sprung an amendment on the full House that was drafted in response to a recent decision by the Environmental Management Commission that would have put North Carolina on the road to joining 11 states, including Virginia, in curbing carbon emissions.

On Wednesday, the EMC had approved a petition for rule making, submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI, as it’s known, is a market-based way to cap and reduce carbon emissions. The approval was only the first step in a protracted and uncertain process that would, even if it clears all potential hurdles, likely not come to fruition for two years.

“We are the policy makers,” Arp said in his justification for the amendment. “This amendment makes sure that the governor does not have authority to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without authorization of the General Assembly.”

The bill would also takes steps to defang the North Carolina Utilities Commission, an independent institution established by the legislature several decades ago, in part, to oversee regulated monopolies. As in many other states, investor-owned utilities are allowed to operate in the state as monopolies in exchange for being held accountable to the commission.

The commission, which is govrened by seven-member panel of gubernatorial appointees) regulates the rates and services of all investor-owned public utilities, like Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. It holds rate increase hearings, approves or disapproves utilities’ energy mix plans, among other duties.

Rep. Becky Carney: Concerned the bill will undercut utilities commission authority (Photo: NCGA)

In debate, Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) pointed out 13 clauses in the bill that strip authority from the panel. This includes requiring the commission to approve a utility’s proposed energy replacement for coal, as long as it meets a few basic benchmarks, like reliability. The commission must allow utilities to pass along to ratepayers some costs of retiring the coal plants. Other sections set a time limit on how long the commission can deliberate.

The bill does add one small enhancement to the commission’s authority by specifying that it must hold more than one public hearing on the retirement of the coal-fired power plants. Previously, it could hold only one.

Climate change provisions spur debate

Beyond the bill’s financial and procedural aspects, it’s not far-fetched to say there are existential consequences of the measure.

HB 951 would establish a new, overarching energy policy for the state. It also would establish, at least through mid-century, North Carolina’s contribution to climate change and the habitability — or inhabitability — of the planet. 

The bill proposes to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 63% by 2035, compared to 2005 levels, short of the 70% goal laid out in the governor’s Clean Energy Plan.

It would retire most of Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants. Allen would convert to solar plus battery storage, but at least one — Marshall Steam Station, and possibly another, Roxboro, would convert to natural gas, a major source of methane and a significant contributor to climate change. 

“Conversion from coal to gas is trading one stranded asset” — essentially obsolete technology that the utility still owes money on — “for another,” Rep. Harrison said. Read more

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