Waiting for answers on coal ash in Belmont

Published: Feb. 10, 2016 at 3:58 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 11, 2016 at 3:58 AM EST
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BELMONT, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - For nearly 60 years, Duke Energy's Allen power plant was the hulking but apparently benign presence off South Point Road, and coal ash its signature.

Fly ash fell from the sky like snow in decades past, neighbors say, while the coarser bottom ash was offered free by the truckload for building driveways.

Now suspicion of Allen, and its owner, is as deeply rooted on this peninsula of Lake Wylie as the 19 million tons of coal ash stashed here. Neither may go away soon.

More than 100 households near the plant, their wells contaminated, have subsisted on bottled water since last spring. Homeowners appear unpersuaded by Duke's insistence that ash didn't taint their water.

"I'm real disappointed with Duke," said Jim Mitchem, who worked as a machinist-fabricator for the company for 33 years. "We have absolutely no input into what's going on."

Like his neighbors, Mitchem, whose 90-year-old father lives beside an Allen ash pond, said he's grown weary of getting too few answers to residents' questions.

While Duke and its experts say contaminated groundwater under Allen's two ash basins is not moving toward private wells, the Department of Environmental Quality has not confirmed that.

Neighbors say they don't trust the groundwater data Duke supplied to state regulators, which points to natural sources of contamination.

"It seems like with all the money (Duke) has spent on ads claiming they're not at fault, they could have bought filtration systems," resident Jeff Kiser said. "And they're not the ones drinking bottled water."

DEQ raised more hackles Dec. 31, when the department said it couldn't decide how risky Allen's basins are to people and the environment. Risk ratings are the key to how and when Duke's ash will get permanent disposal.

In a followup report last month, the department said Allen's ponds are of low risk to groundwater. But DEQ ranked the ponds overall as low-to-intermediate risk as it awaits more data.

"It's murkier now than ever," Mitchem said.

The final decision will be important because low-risk ponds can be drained and capped, among other options, without removing the ash. Intermediate-risk ponds have to be dug up.

The ash that Allen's neighbors so fear may outlast them all. A public hearing on the risk ratings will be held March 22.

Excavate or cap?

Environmental advocates say digging up Duke's ash is the only way to keep it from contaminating water supplies. That has happened in South Carolina, where utilities including Duke are busily excavating.

The utility SCE&G reported last month that levels of arsenic, one of the potentially toxic metals in ash, fell sharply in test wells as ash ponds were excavated.

Duke has agreed to dig up 20 of its 32 ponds in North Carolina, either because state law requires it or physical factors demand it.

That leaves the fate of a dozen basins – including the two at Allen – undecided. Those basins hold more than 70 percent of the 108 million tons of ash Duke holds in ponds.

Excavation is much more expensive than capping, and it takes years longer. But Duke's experts on an advisory board say it isn't the best solution.

Removing the ash would increase accident risks while shipping it, use up landfill space and needlessly contaminate new disposal sites, said Bucknell University engineering professor Jeffrey Evans.

"There are a lot of remedial techniques that provide better environmental protection than simply saying we have to get the ash out of groundwater," said Evans, whose work with hazardous waste dates to Love Canal, the New York community that became an iconic contamination site in the mid-1970s.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in releasing the first federal rules on coal ash disposal in 2014, allowed utilities to cap ash in place or excavate it. Either option would drain ponds of water, relieving pressure that pushes contaminants toward groundwater.

John Daniels, a UNC Charlotte engineering professor who chairs Duke's advisory board, said it's important to consider multiple cleanup options, including digging up ash.

Excavation, he said by email, "is a blunt force approach when there are often safer, more effective and more sustainable alternatives." Alternatives such as stabilizing ash in place are increasingly effective for larger impoundments, he said.

Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents advocates, said Duke is relying on paid consultants to reach conclusions that would save the company money and management headaches. No other industry is allowed to store waste in unlined basins, he added.

"It's self-evident, I think, and a basic physical fact that if you store coal ash in unlined pits next to waterways you are going to contaminate groundwater," Holleman said. "I think it was a Duke University scientist who said you don't have to be Joe Chemist to figure that out."

The law center has complained of what it calls "egregious errors" in data Duke has submitted to state regulators.

Duke's experts created computer models that simulate the flow of groundwater at each of Duke's coal plants. The models show little difference in the future extent of contamination whether ash is capped or excavated.

Boron, one of the many metals found in coal ash, is a key indicator of contaminated groundwater.

Duke's models show that if the ponds at Allen are capped in place, boron disappears within 40 years. If they're excavated, boron is gone in 20 years. But models that predict conditions 100 years in the future show less boron by capping.

Spokeswoman Erin Culbert said Duke will work with outside experts and regulators "to make sure Duke's data and Duke's perception of the data is not the last voice."

'Water People'

The half-dozen Belmont residents who met at the volunteer fire department on a recent Wednesday night call themselves the Water People, for their contaminated wells and stacks of bottled water.

"We don't trust Duke. We don't feel like they've been transparent," said one of them, Bill Collins. "We're not convinced that everything is going as it should. We feel like the government is in Duke's back pocket."

No cheap or easy answer is in sight. Collins said the town of Belmont quoted him $4,500 to tap on to a city water line.

Debra Baker was pregnant when she and her husband Jack moved to Wildlife Road, overlooking Allen's smokestacks and ash ponds, nearly 20 years ago. "Our big joke used to be that we had a waterfront view," she said.

Now Baker wonders whether the plant has shattered her family.

Six years after moving there, Jack Baker started having heart problems and labored breathing that a doctor said was "acquired environmentally." He died in 2008.

Their son Charlie, 19, has suffered unexplained breathing problems and nosebleeds. Debra Baker, a fit 56, had a heart attack while working out at a gym in September 2014.

Since then she's canvassed her neighbors. She found, in addition to cancer and heart attacks, lung problems, nosebleeds, migraines, stomach ailments and skin rashes.

"What do we want? We want to make sure our families are safe," said neighbor Jack Tench, a respiratory therapist who has lived near Allen since 1978. "We want stable property values and clean water.

"And they're going to have to start cleaning this up."