SHERILL’S FORD, NC (WBTV) - Executives with Duke Energy say it would take decades to excavate its coal ash basins, as ordered by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Last week, DEQ released ratings for 25 of Duke's 33 coal ash ponds across the state that would require all of the company's coal ash basins be closed by 2024. The remaining eight basins already must be closed by 2019.
Responding to the state's ratings, Duke CEO Lynn Good called the ratings and cleanup timeline "extreme."
Instead of excavating, Good and Duke Energy executives say putting a cap over the coal ash basins would be better for the environment and far less expensive.
To illustrate that point, the company led reporters on a tour of the coal ash basin at the Marshall Steam Station on Thursday.
The basin feels more like a state nature preserve than a dumping ground for a toxic byproduct of energy generation. There are wetlands that play home to Herons and Osprey bordering a glistening lake. Trees and tall grass fill the rest of the landscape. Underneath the land and water is millions of tons of coal ash that the power company started burying in the 1960s.
Marshall's coal ash basin is among the 25 rated 'intermediate-risk', which means it must be excavated by 2024 under the current Coal Ash Management Act of 2014.
But on Thursday's tour, Brian Weisker, Duke's Vice President of Coal Combustion Operations and Maintenance, said it would take decades to clear a 400-plus acre basin like the one at Marshall.
"The estimate is around 800,000 trucks to excavate the basin and haul it off site to some remote landfill," Weisker said.
Weisker talked up the alternative cap-in-place option pushed by Good in response to last week's ratings.
"You'd put a synthetic cap and then a soil cap on top of it and then you seed it," Weisker explained. As Weisker told it, the alternative would still be a big job: all of the trees would have to be cleared and the earth re-shaped to allow for drainage and other engineering considerations.
Environmentalists also say capping coal ash basins would not solve the hazard presented by the presence of coal ash below the water table. On Thursday, Weisker struggled to answer questions about what the company would be willing to do to mitigate the risk of future groundwater contamination posed by the cap solution.
"There could be some options that you could engineer to do," Weisker said. "I mean, if we get really technical with what you could do."
Weisker said it would be possible to build a wall around the basin or install a filtration system but was unsure whether either option had actually been considered by the company.
A company spokeswoman accompanying the tour said Duke had submitted plans for several groundwater contamination mitigation options but could not immediately provide specifics.