Cleaning up coal ash pits likely to cost billions

Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press

Eden, N.C. — Giant earthmoving machines beep and grind as they drop 17-ton scoops of coal ash and dirt into dozens of railroad cars lined up for two-thirds of a mile at a site along the Virginia-North Carolina border, where the country’s largest electricity company was responsible for one of the worst spills of the toxic, liquefied waste in U.S. history.

Duke Energy Corp. will ship 1.5 million tons of residue from decades of burning coal for electricity to a contracted landfill about 130 miles away in central Virginia. The utility built 2 miles of railroad track just to connect existing rail lines with the excavation site.

Once the contents of the pit roughly a quarter mile from the Dan River are emptied, it’ll be lined with waterproof material so heavy metals won’t filter into water underground or the river. Then it will be refilled with much of the 1.5 million tons of liquefied coal ash taken from two other pits closer to the river’s edge. A burst pipe at one of them triggered the disaster two years ago this week and led officials to re-examine how they plan to cope with similar dangers at basins around the country.

The nation’s cleanup price tag, which utility customers may be asked to pay, already is pushing into the billions.

Many who live near coal ash pits fear the waste allows heavy metals to filter into their groundwater, and they say it’s past time to move the stuff. For the past 10 months, Duke Energy has been providing Deborah Graham’s family with bottled water after the state health department warned that her well water near another Duke site was contaminated with toxic heavy metals.

“We want it fixed,” said Graham, who wants the pits dug out and the waste moved from Buck power plant, her neighbor, 40 miles northeast of Charlotte. “No one should have to look at their faucet with fear.”

Coal ash byproducts include arsenic, chromium, lead, and boron. Duke Energy’s lawyers admit that over the past 90 years, coal ash has tainted groundwater below the unlined basins at its Buck plant, but they deny that it has polluted neighboring water wells like Graham’s.

The company last year agreed to pay $7 million to settle allegations of groundwater pollution at its coal ash pits. Duke Energy also pleaded guilty to criminal violations of federal water pollution laws and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and remediation.

More than 230 power plants in 33 of the country’s 48 continental states have coal-ash impoundments, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Utilities in Georgia and Virginia say EPA rules that took effect last year are the reason they’re closing all their coal-ash basins.

Now that enforcement is coming, utilities can be expected to overstate cleanup costs to pressure lawmakers and rule-makers to tread lightly, said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.

“Industry will complain that it’s going to cost millions and millions more dollars to comply with a particular regulation than you actually see once the regulation is in place and the wheels start turning and there’s competition and innovation,” Evans said.