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DEQ proposes cleanup at H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro

NC Department of Environmental Quality

It’s been almost two years since 39,000 tons of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste product spilled into the Dan River, creating an environmental disaster.  Since that incident, North Carolina worked on a plan to close coal ash basins across the state.  The next step in the process determines which impoundments pose the greatest risk to public health and the environment.  On the last day of 2015, the Department of Environmental Quality released their Draft Proposed Impoundment Classification report, as required by the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014.  Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder says the proposal sets up a much sought after schedule for the closure of coal ash basins.

“So something ranked as high has to be closed by December 31st of 2019.  Something ranked as intermediate has to be closed by December 31st of 2024.  And then the low impoundments don’t have to be closed until December 31st, 2029.”

The new designations put four of Duke Energy’s 14 facilities at high risk.  They include the Dan River Steam Station where the ash spill occurred, the Sutton Steam Plant in Wilmington which has extensive groundwater contamination, the Riverbend power plant located upstream from Charlotte’s drinking water supply, and the Asheville plant which also has groundwater contamination issues.  Now, the coal ash must be excavated from these high-priority sites and deposited in a lined landfill.  Reeder says a number of factors were considered when proposing classifications for the remaining ten sites. 

“We looked at what we call structural integrity, were the dams safe? Were the impoundments safe? Do they pose a threat to breaking or something like we had the Dan River? We looked at potential impacts of surface water. Were the facilities located in or near a 100 year flood plain? Do they have the capacity to pollute surface waters?  And third, which is probably in some cases the most important category is the groundwater contamination.  How far does the groundwater contamination spread? Does it pose a risk to public health? Has it impacted public wells offsite? Things like that.”

The Department of Environmental Quality classified the Cape Fear, Weatherspoon, and Roxboro sites as intermediate.  The H.F. Lee plant, located in Wayne County also falls under the intermediate designation.  All of the coal ash at these sites must be excavated and the impoundments closed by 2024.

While all of Duke’s impoundments will eventually close, not all will have coal ash removed.  The draft proposed classification report states that environmentally protective and less costly options are available to impoundments deemed low-priority.  Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center Frank Holleman.

“That leaves seven sites across the State that DEQ is not proposing to require to be cleaned up and that Duke itself is not agreed to clean up yet.”

Holleman says in South Carolina, utilities are committing to cleaning up every coal ash site in the state, and he says North Carolinians should get the same protection. 

"Duke Energy should be required to clean up its coal ash pollution in the state.  Unfortunately, DEQ watered down those recommendations and instead of finding that most of the sites in the state were high risk, of the ones the DEQ political leadership rated, it said it couldn’t make up its mind but they thought they were might be low risk, where Duke would not be required to move the ash.”

Holleman says there is hope for people living near the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro.   The Southern Environmental Law Center, along with Sound Rivers and the NeuseRiverkeeper Foundation have been in legal battle with Duke Energy and the State for the last four years concerning the cleanup and removal of coal ash from five impoundments at the site, which located in close proximity to the Neuse River.

“Fortunately, we were able to reach an agreement with Duke last year that Duke would remove the ash and clean up that site.  Unfortunately, at that time, DEQ actually opposed the effort.  But the court ruled in our favor.  Now, in these ratings, DEQ has finally agreed to go along with the conservation groups, the Neuse Riverkeeper, and Duke had previously agreed to do.”

Last May, residents who live near the H.F. Lee plant in the Rosewood community were told not to drink their well water after tests showed high levels of toxic heavy metals.   According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a total of nine health risk evaluations were sent to well owners warning them not to drink their water due to the presence of vanadium, cobalt, manganese, iron and chromium.  DEQ’s Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder.

“Anybody who has been given a do not drink letter from DHHS is getting bottled water from Duke if they requested it.  We are making the determination now whether these wells have been impacted by these coal ash ponds.”

The Coal Ash Management Act requires that Duke Energy pay for the testing of all water supply wells within 1,500 feet of each of the utility's 14 coal-fired electrical generating facility boundaries. Reeder says surface and groundwater samples are being collected at over 900 public and private well locations near Duke Energy’s facilities, including the retired H.F. Lee plant.

“We’ll take groundwater samples that we take on a routine basis.  We’re analyzing those, we’re developing groundwater transport models to determine where this groundwater is migrating to so we can stop its further migration.  I mean, we’re taking a tremendous amount of action.  We’ve got people working everyday on this problem, a large number of people, to make sure that until these facilities can safely close, they will not impact the environment or public health in North Carolina.”

The presence of toxic heavy metals in well water samples near the H.F. Lee plant has not officially been linked to the presence of coal ash.  But Reeder says if it has impacted the well water supply, residents will be provided with a permanent, alternate supply of water.  

“Duke might hook them up to city water so they will have safe water forever at no expense to themselves.  We’re going to do everything we can to protect public health.”

Now that Duke Energy’s 14 facilities have been classified in the draft report, the Department of Environmental Quality must provide technical and scientific background data and analyses and describe how each impoundment was evaluated.  That document must be made available within 30 days of the proposed draft classifications.  Reeder says they’re also planning public meetings in each county where a coal ash facility is located giving residents the opportunity to comment on the proposed classifications.

“Okay, so the citizens that live around Lee, are they satisfied with the intermediate ranking?  Do they think it should have been something else?  Do they have any data that would support a ranking of something else?  Remember, this is a science driven process, it’s all being driven by science and the data we get.  So we’re really interested in any kind of scientific data that anybody might have. That would lend its way to making a different ranking than what we gave it as an intermediate.  That’s what the public comment period is all about.”

A public meeting has been set for March 10th at 6:00 pm at Wayne County Community College in Goldsboro.   Reeder says the high, intermediate and low classifications are subject to change based on public comment.  Once the rankings are finalized, a schedule for when impoundment closures will take place will be determined.  

To view the Executive Summary of the Draft Proposed Impoundment Classifications, go to:http://portal.ncdenr.org/c/document_library/get_file?p_l_id=1169848&folderId=26884096&name=DLFE-121044.pdf

To read a Frequently Asked Questions document, go to: http://portal.ncdenr.org/c/document_library/get_file?p_l_id=1169848&folderId=1837865&name=DLFE-121075.pdf

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.