When Duke Energy dismantles the two tall smokestacks that dominate the landscape across the river from Wilmington, it will signal not only its Sutton Plant’s transition from coal-fired power to natural gas power; it will also mark a significant step in the push for cleaner energy in the Cape Fear region.
While area environmentalists celebrate that, they note, however, that the smokestacks’ removal will not mean the end of their coal-fed concerns—particularly when it comes to impacts from industries on, and around, the Cape Fear River.
The Sutton Plant’s coal ash disposal ponds remain—posing a concern, if not a pollution risk, for groundwater quality and nearby Sutton Lake—a manmade lake that is a popular boating and fishing destination.
And a cement plant proposed in nearby Castle Hayne—by Titan America subsidiary Carolinas Cement—would also be coal-fired, as speakers noted in a boat tour of the Sutton Plant on Saturday.
While Sutton’s coal units will be taken offline by the end of the year, and its smokestacks dismantled once the units are decommissioned, Titan’s proposed cement plant could end up filling the smokestack void, said Zak Keith, an associate organizer with the Cape Fear chapter of environmental group the Sierra Club.
“So on one hand, we take off a coal-generating plant. That’s really great,” Keith said. “But are we just replacing it with another problem?”
Coordinated by the Sierra Club chapter, Cape Fear River Watch and Wilmington Water Tours, Saturday’s tour took more than two dozen riders—most of them members of those local groups—upriver to the plant as speakers touched on concerns that included cleanup of Sutton’s coal ash ponds, where elevated levels of pollutants have been found.
A concern is those pollutants could end up contaminating wells that serve the nearby Flemington community. While those wells have not been found to be contaminated, in October—a day to the month of Saturday’s tour—Duke entered into an agreement with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to share the cost of monitoring those wells and extending water lines to serve the residential neighborhood.
That agreement was approved conditionally, however, as members of the CFPUA board directed staff to negotiate with Duke a provision that called for restricting the area from additional wells, meaning groundwater could not be drawn from the area. Critics have said the provision would restrict the public from a natural resource.
Saturday’s tour—called the “Toxic Tour”— was meant to highlight that concern and others, said Ed Beck, chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter.
“We wanted to get the word out and make sure the public is aware of this issue—the concern about coal ash ponds and their potential hazard and the need for cleaning them up,” said Beck, who worked 35 years with the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, retiring as this area’s regional supervisor.
“It’s exciting that Duke Energy is getting away from the use of coal and moving toward a cleaner energy, but it still leaves these ash ponds in place with currently no plan in place to remove them and clean them up,” Beck said.
“So we want to get the word out and encourage the public to put pressure on both politicians and the energy company directly that we want to see a plan in place, and also to have the public involved in developing that plan, so that it’s effective and meets the needs of the public,” he said.
Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter, said Duke has a plan for cleaning up the ponds but has yet to disclose it to the public, encouraging riders to sign a petition requesting not only the cleanup but also the disclosure.
“Because they do have a plan—they’ve said that to media,” she said. “That’s been reported in newspapers, that there is a plan, but we don’t know what that plan is.
“I would like to know,” she said. “I know all of us would like to know what it is, and we’d like the opportunity to have public input in that plan.”
Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke, said studies on the Sutton site, scheduled to start next year, would initiate the planning process for closing the coal ash ponds, or basins.
“This data will help the team develop the most appropriate closure plan using well-accepted industry standards,” Culbert said in an emailed response. “We will submit the closure plan to the state and then can begin the project once approved. We will continue to comply with all the station’s environmental permits through the process, and would monitor groundwater there for many years.”
Culbert said the plan would minimize “total long-term environmental impact and costs” of either capping the ponds with a synthetic membrane or excavating and removing ash from the site to a lined landfill, the latter a much more expensive proposition.
“This decision will drive the ultimate closure schedule,” Culbert said.
“It is clear that anti-coal groups advocate for a complete excavation of ash to a lined landfill. It is also clear they do not have a full understanding of what that entails and what costs it may present for Duke Energy customers,” she said.
“Capping ash basins with a synthetic membrane is significantly less expensive and can generally be completed faster than a full excavation. An excavation and removal approach is often much more expensive and likely would take many more years to complete, given permitting and constructing a new landfill and moving the ash itself.
“Regardless of closure method, the long-term impacts to groundwater will be greatly reduced,” she said. “As a regulated utility, the costs for ash basin closure and other activities are typically paid for by our customers, so it is our responsibility to make prudent, fact-based decisions.
“If the studies determine that installing a synthetic cap would not adequately protect groundwater, then we would opt for an excavation and removal approach,” she said.
Kemp Burdette, Riverkeeper and executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, emphasized the issue of lined versus non-lined coal ash disposal, describing the ponds as “giant holes in the ground.”
“As Frank Holloman, an attorney with [the Southern Environmental Law Center] says: ‘They’re using 13th century technology here to treat 21st century pollution,’” Burdette said. “It’s a big hole in the ground, unlined, and as you know, here in the Coastal Plain, our water table’s very high. And as you can imagine, all the long laundry list of pollutants that are in coal ash are soaking straight down into the aquifer into our groundwater supplies.”
Showing a map of an ash pond breach that occurred, he said, in 2010, Burdette added: “Fortunately this was a fairly small spill, and it was on the backside; it didn’t actually go into Sutton Lake. But it points out what is important to remember, and that is these coal ash ponds and these berms—these are not highly engineered, fail-safe structures. These are in some cases just mounds of dirt piled up to hold coal ash; in some cases they used coal ash piled up to hold coal ash.
“These things are always what I would consider a ticking time bomb,” he said, “especially here in the Cape Fear. We’re hurricane alley; we get big rainfall events—19, 21, 22 inches of rain at a time.”
As the Wilmington Water Tours catamaran approached the plant, its red-and-white smokestacks towering above them, Burdette pointed out two smaller, gray stacks that he said are for the new natural gas boiler.
“They’re almost done with that construction to convert to natural gas,” he said. “We could have a whole ‘nother cruise that talked about natural gas and where that’s coming from. No easy answers here.
“But what we do know is that just because they’re switching from coal to natural gas doesn’t mean that the 50-plus years of coal ash that are sitting in those ponds is going anywhere,” he said. “That coal ash will continue to contaminate the groundwater, will continue to contaminate Sutton Lake until it’s cleaned up.”
Kelly Martin, of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” initiative, pointed out to riders that the red-and-white smokestacks were not smoking, describing the occasion as a success.
“I want everybody to look and see a beautiful sight, which is that this thing is not spewing any pollution right now. It’s not burning coal,” Martin said. “And in my world, we need to celebrate our successes as they come. And it’s pretty exciting that this coal plant is not burning coal right now and that it’s coming offline and as of next year it probably won’t ever burn coal again.”
CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIDEO OF SATURDAY’S ‘TOXIC TOUR’ ALONG THE CAPE FEAR RIVER.