Environmental groups urge action from state on coal ash cleanup

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Nearly three months after the coal ash spill in Eden put a national spotlight on North Carolina, and two weeks before state legislators convene this year’s short session of the General Assembly, environmental groups are riding the spill’s momentum and continuing to push for more regulation and action—both at the state level and from local governments.

Duke Energy's Sutton Plant, viewed from downriver.
Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant, viewed from downriver. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.

In Wilmington, groups such as the Sierra Club and Cape Fear River Watch have called on city council to adopt a resolution urging lawmakers to require Duke Energy, which operates the local Sutton Plant, to address the 33 coal ash basins it manages in North Carolina, either by lining and covering them or by relocating them to lined landfills away from public water sources.

Two of those basins are located at Sutton, whose red-and-white smokestacks—now dormant after the plant’s recent conversion from coal to natural gas power—dominate the landscape across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. Situated alongside that river, the plant and its basins are located beside the manmade Sutton Lake, a state-managed fishing lake that is part of the plant site.

As of Monday, two weeks after the groups made a presentation to council, they had not heard back on the resolution request, said Zachary Keith with the Sierra Club’s state chapter. At a forum that night, Keith and others encouraged the forum’s attendees to contact Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, to urge further action on the coal ash issue.

“The momentum is on our side,” said Keith, who was addressing a crowd of supporters alongside Kemp Burdette, of Cape Fear River Watch, and Mary MacLean Asbill, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has partnered with the groups and others in filing litigation against Duke Energy.

“A catastrophe gets attention,” Asbill told the crowd, noting comments that followed the Feb. 2 spill that dumped as much as 39,000 tons of coal ash from a retired plant in Eden into the Dan River. Burdette said the spill has come to be regarded as the third-worst spill in the country’s history.

Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch, Mary Maclean Asbill of the Southeastern Environmental Law Center and Zachary Keith of the Sierra Club, from left, participate in Monday's forum.
Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch, Mary Maclean Asbill of the Southeastern Environmental Law Center and Zachary Keith of the Sierra Club, from left, participate in Monday’s forum.

“Almost immediately after this spill, we heard state Sen. [Tom] Apodaca, from Asheville, who is no general friend of the environment,” Asbill said, “come out swinging, come out strong, saying we need timelines, we need to remove the ash away from the water. This was shocking words from this man’s mouth, but we’re going to hold him to it.”

Asbill noted similar comments that she said the groups would likewise “hold them to” during the short session, which starts May 14.

“This is not just a Cape Fear region problem, this is not just a North Carolina problem, but it’s a national problem,” Asbill said. “And this is a prime example, and this is one of the first things that happened that got the United States to become alarmed and wake up to coal ash.”

Burdette, who serves as the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said the Dan River spill coated 70 miles of water, turning the entire river area gray. He said coal-fired plants are the leading contributor to water pollution based on toxicity across the country, listing elements found in coal ash including arsenic, mercury, selenium and lead.

Burdette said the groups’ intentions include securing stronger rules for storing coal ash, which he said totals 745 million gallons at Sutton.

“Even though coal ash is laden with a long list of heavy metals and carcinogens, it’s largely unregulated by federal state government,” he said. “Industry pressure and inaction by the EPA has really allowed this to happen, and although we’ve got some coal ash rules that are being considered right now, even if those rules were adopted today, it might take years before they were enforced.”

Two weeks earlier, Burdette made similar points to city council, which had previously been offered tours of Sutton by Duke Energy.

Prefacing his comments, Burdette told council: “Part of the reason we’re doing this is we believe a resolution from the Wilmington City Council encouraging proper cleanup of coal ash would have a significant impact on cleanup legislation that we expect to come out of the North Carolina General Assembly in the short session.”

Contending that coal ash is unregulated, Burdette added: “State action is needed to address North Carolina’s coal ash problems.”

For Duke Energy’s part, the company has said it has committed to accelerating the closure of the basins at Sutton. Mike Hughes, vice president of community relations for Duke Energy in North Carolina, told city council following Burdette’s presentation that the company “will provide” a detailed closure plan this fall and will work to complete the dewatering of the basins over the next two years.

Monday's forum, presented by the Sierra Club, filled the MC Erny Gallery at the WHQR offices in downtown Wilmington.
Monday’s forum, presented by the Sierra Club, filled the MC Erny Gallery at the WHQR offices in downtown Wilmington.

Such a plan is what Burdette and others have been requesting of Duke since before the Eden spill, which Hughes said put a national spotlight on North Carolina and Duke Energy, even though, he said, the issue is nationwide.

“The issue of coal management has been in the news for the past few months, but, perhaps contrary to popular belief, it’s not a new one for Duke Energy,” Hughes said. “Through our two utilities, we’ve been managing 33 ash basins in North Carolina, in some cases for up to six agencies. We’ve been doing so under the direction of state and federal agencies, using the same storage technologies and practices that are in place at 650 ash basins in the country.”

Hughes said the two basins at Sutton cover 155 acres and hold about 2.6 million tons of ash. He said the company’s preference is to find a reuse application for the ash, such as structural fill for roadways, airport runways and similar projects.

“The issue of ash storage is not unique to Duke Energy. It is not unique to North Carolina. It is an issue of immense scope and complexity, and the cost of implementing changes and how we will store ash will carry a significant cost,” he said. “We are focused on moving forward responsibly and efficiently with public policy that’s based on fact and science, rather than emotion.”

At Monday’s forum, Asbill said the groups will be urging legislators for bills that are simple and state clear deadlines and locations for removal of coal ash from Duke Energy’s basins. She also said the costs for doing so should be borne by the company and its shareholders, and not passed on the company’s ratepayers.

“We’re just advocating keeping the bills simple,” she said. “Where we have our eyes right now is on the North Carolina General Assembly.”

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Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers