Duke Energy: Cleaning up coal ash ‘is going to take time’

sfretwell@thestate.comMarch 24, 2014 

Pasture land near Duke Energy’s coal fired power plant in Anderson County, where an ash dam is seeping water

SAMMY FRETWELL — SFRETWELL@THESTATE.COM

Duke Energy downplayed concerns Monday about water pollution and dam safety at the company’s only operating coal plant in South Carolina, saying the Upstate site is safe and should be no reason for alarm.

During a meeting with the state Public Service Commission, the company also said it was still evaluating whether to clean ash from waste ponds at the plant along the Saluda River in Anderson County. Cleaning up coal ash takes time, according to Duke. The company has more than 100 million tons of ash at an array of power plant sites, officials said.

But the company’s answers didn’t satisfy environmentalists, who told the PSC that the Anderson County site has polluted groundwater and that Duke’s ash ponds have begun to threaten earthen dams that hold back tainted wastewater. They want Duke to clean out the ash ponds as other South Carolina utilities have agreed to do.

Attorney Frank Holleman said Duke’s coal-fired power plant along the Saluda River is like many of the utility’s coal plants in North Carolina, where leaks and spills have occurred from ash ponds used for decades to hold the polluted byproducts of power production.

Holleman cautioned the PSC against taking the company’s word, saying Duke had repeatedly misled officials in North Carolina about the safety of its operations. The company, which is under criminal investigation in North Carolina, has said its coal ash operations were routinely inspected and not a threat to the environment, Holleman said.

Duke’s statements “have proven not to hold up in light of subsequent events,” Holleman said.

A spill at a company coal ash pond on North Carolina’s Dan River last month is a prime example of how the company’s assurances have been hollow, he said. The spill occurred when a stormwater pipe broke, sending 27 million gallons of water and coal ash into the river.

“It proved without a doubt that Duke Energy’s storage of coal ash in these unlined, antiquated facilities is not safe,” Holleman said.

Monday’s events at the S.C. Public Service Commission followed a request by Duke to address the commissioners, who set utility rates for the company and other investor-owned utilities in South Carolina. Holleman, who is with the Southern Environmental Law Center, asked to be included in the discussion. It’s unclear what the PSC could do about the issue, but Holleman said he hopes it could have some impact.

“You’ve raised some pretty alarming concerns here today,” PSC commissioner Swain Whitfield said in asking Holleman if there was an imminent danger from the Lee coal plant near Anderson. Holleman said no one knows, but removing ash from the ponds would remove possible threats.

Holleman, a Greenville resident, successfully sued SCE&G and Santee Cooper, both South Carolina utilities, to clean out coal ash over the next decade. That leaves Duke as the only utility in the state with no plan for the ash.

Company officials did not offer a cleanup plan Monday, although an official said the site would be one of the first to be visited by a team of company officials examining coal ash issues. Duke representatives said the company has more than 100 million tons of coal ash at power plants, some of which began operation in the early 20th century. Duke operates through most of the Carolinas, although it also has operations in the Midwest.

“We have accumulated over 100 years’ worth of coal ash on these sites — something like 100 million tons of wet ash, another 50 million of dry ash,” said George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs. “It is a lot of material.”

To put that into perspective, Everett said it could take 30 years to clean coal ash from the company’s largest power plant site in North Carolina.

“Those are sobering numbers,” he told the PSC. “It is a task that is going to take time.’

Duke’s coal ash ponds on the Saluda River have been largely overshadowed by problems at 14 company sites in North Carolina. Consultants in 2010 cited problems with seepage from dams at the Anderson County plant, according to a report last month in The State newspaper.

Company officials earlier Monday said they’re running a safe operation in North Carolina and at the Anderson County site in South Carolina. In addition to regular inspection of the dams at the Saluda River plant, the site has only limited groundwater contamination, officials said. Company officials told the PSC they knew of only two pollutants – iron and manganese – in groundwater beneath the site.

Holleman, however, said he’s obtained state Department of Health and Environmental Control documents showing that arsenic, beryllium and lead have been found in groundwater, as well as arsenic in the soil. He also noted that flowing streams run into the ash ponds in Anderson County, which raises questions about the spread of pollutants and dam safety.

Company officials said the ash ponds are not like one that leaked toxins through a buried stormwater pipe last month on the Dan River in North Carolina. No such pipe is buried at the Lee steam site on the Saluda River, officials said.

Duke’s power plant near Williamston is about halfway between Anderson and Greenville. Two ash ponds are uphill from the Saluda, a waterway popular with fishermen and used as a drinking-water source in some communities. The Saluda begins in the mountains and flows to Columbia below Lake Murray.

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