Storing coal ash in unlined piles overlooking our waterways is a bad idea. These massive sites extend below the water table and are only separated from our water supply by earthen dams. At Kingston, Dan River, and most recently Sutton, the potential impacts on our surface waters are well documented. In 2016 the people of North Carolina weighed-in on the risk posed by Plant Allen on Lake Wylie and Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. After hearing from the public, the state determined the sites were a higher risk.
Then Duke and the NCDEQ began lobbying. As a result of their lobbying efforts, the rules were amended. If Duke Energy provided an alternative water source for residents within a half mile of the coal ash ponds and made the required repairs on the dams, they could qualify to be considered “low risk”. Today’s announcement to reclassify these facilities as “low risk” is expected. Low risk sites do not have to be excavated and can be capped in place at the discretion of the NCDEQ. This is significantly less expensive for Duke Energy.
While the required improvements at these sites certainly lower the risk of failure, the possibility is still very real. Duke’s maps show a breach at Marshall (Lake Norman) or Allen (Lake Wylie) would be catastrophic for our region. Duke has a history of mismanaging these sites, including losing track of outfalls and ignoring warnings from their own administrators. If capped in place, these sites will need to be monitored and the earthen dams repaired in perpetuity.
Breaches are not the only concern. Coal ash at these sites is stored below the water table in violation of the federal CCR rules and has contaminated our groundwater. The plume of pollution will continue to migrate off site regardless of capping.
NC DEQ will ultimately decide how these sites will be closed. Duke will argue that capping in place is the most economical way to close these sites. They will say excavation is an unnecessary cost and would take decades. However, by doing the bare minimum (and lobbying for lower minimums) they ultimately pass the risk onto public health and future ratepayers. This decision caps an almost decade long fight over the storage of coal ash by our river.
Public hearings will be scheduled soon. Duke will certainly be expressing their position and it is crucial for everyone concerned about clean water to do the same. These sites are too old, too large, and too threatening to remain in place. They need to be removed from the banks of the Catawba.