Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't get too excited about state's coal ash rules

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 12:23 PM

There are a few things that don't rest well with me about the news that the state plans to force Duke Energy to conduct further groundwater testing around their coal ash ponds. Here they are, in no particular order:

The state has known about contaminated groundwater at these sites for quite some time. The moment they discovered the water was contaminated they should have demanded further testing, but they didn't.

You should know, Duke Energy took eight whole years to install the first groundwater testing wells at their Riverbend plant (map), the one that's sitting on the edge of Charlotte's main drinking water source -- Mountain Island Lake.

Here's the skinny on that: The E.P.A. was trying to decide whether or not to re-classify coal ash as hazardous waste -- what with its mix of toxic ingredients that reads like the dark side of the periodic table and all. The E.P.A. has, by the way, been trying to re-classify coal ash as a hazardous waste for the better part of 30 years. But, in an agreement with industry lobbyists, back in 2000, the E.P.A. agreed not to re-classify the slurry if the industry installed groundwater testing wells.

Riverbend's wells weren't installed until December 2008, eight years later and the same month nearly a billion gallons of slurry smothered several hundred acres in Tennessee. What took so long? Duke will tell you that they were working on it, that it takes a while to install wells, that it was a voluntary effort anyway. (The new regulation is tied to their federal discharge permit — aka license to pollute — that's being renewed this month.) I'll tell you my step-dad drills wells for his neighbors in rural Alablama; it sure as shit doesn't take eight years to drill a well — more like a couple days.

So, pardon me if I'm a little skeptical about this week's smooth-the-feathers-of-the-masses news from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Division of Water Quality.

If both Duke Energy and the State of North Carolina were the concerned, good neighbors they'd like us to think they are, it wouldn't take additional regulations to clean up those ponds — they'd do it because it's the right thing to do.

Also, the photograph — of a dump truck dumping a black substance — that's currently accompanying  the Observer's article is misleading. Coal ash slurry is created when fly ash is watered down. It's then pumped through long pipes into the ponds. Now, if you zoom in super close on a map of the coal ash ponds you will see dump trucks hauling coal ash around. The company has to close the first pond, built in the mid-1950s, every few years because it is so full of coal ash they have to dig some out to make room for more. If you'll follow the truck's tracks, you can see that the excavated coal ash is dumped near the ponds, and only a few hundred yards from the Stonewater neighborhood. Just thought you'd like to know — coal ash slurry, like that in Riverbend's ponds that's contaminating the groundwater, is a thick, wet sludge not a big pile of dirt.

You can read the Charlotte Observer article, by Bruce Henderson, about the new regulations here.

If you haven't already, check out the article I wrote for this month's Charlotte Magazine about the Riverbend ponds and our Catawba Riverkeeper's quest to protect our river. Look for an update on this story later today.

Here's what happened when the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash pond breached its dam:

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