On February 2, 2014, the second largest coal ash spill in U.S. history occurred in North Carolina when a stormwater pipe under coal ash impoundments at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant ruptured. An estimated 140,000 tons of coal ash and contaminated wastewater was released into the Dan River. This disaster drew public attention to a significant problem and uncovering questionable practices in the handling of coal ash in the state. North Carolina is home to 14 coal-fired power plants and a total of 50 coal ash impoundments. According to the EPA, North Carolina’s impoundments have enough capacity to hold 19 billion gallons of coal ash.
Coal ash is a byproduct of the combustion of coal at power plants to make electricity, and contains more than a dozen heavy metals and chemicals which include arsenic, mercury, lead, boron, cadmium, selenium, chromium, nickel, thallium, vanadium, zinc, nitrogen, chlorides, bromides, iron, copper and aluminum. On April 19, 2013, EPA signed a notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the effluent limitations guidelines and standards for coal fired power plants that would strengthen the existing controls on discharges from all steam electric power plants. The proposal sets the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants, based on technology improvements in the steam electric power industry over the last three decades. No final action has been taken on those regulations.
Following the 2014 Dan River disaster the NC General Assembly began moving draft legislation aimed at addressing the state’s coal ash sites in response to the Dan River coal ash disaster. North Carolina is home to 14 coal-fired power plants and a total of 50 coal ash impoundments. According to the EPA, North Carolina’s impoundments have enough capacity to hold 19 billion gallons of coal ash.
Following the 2014 Dan River disaster the NC General Assembly passed legislation (N.C. Session Law 2014-122) aimed at addressing the state’s coal ash sites. Though many groups felt it was not strong enough, it required all water supply wells within 1,000 of any one of Duke Energy’s active or retired coal-fired power plants in North Carolina be sampled as part of the groundwater assessment being conducted in accordance with N.C. Session Law 2014-122. Homeowners were contacted and wells were sampled and tested for a number of metals and other constituents that are both naturally occurring and associated with coal burning activities. Those are: aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, calcium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, mercury, nickel, potassium, selenium, sodium, strontium, thallium, vanadium, zinc, chloride, sulfate, alkalinity, bicarbonate, carbonate, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids and turbidity. Testing was also done for: pH, temperature, the water level, and other factors.
Now the first batch of test results are back, though the full data will not be released until all homeowners are notified. The results from the first batch of tests include results for well owners near Duke Energy’s Allen, Asheville, Belews Creek, Buck, Cliffside, Marshall, Roxboro and Sutton facilities. Based on the laboratory results, North Carolina regulators found that the most common constituents that exceeded state regulatory standards were iron, manganese and pH – all of which can be found naturally in North Carolina soils and groundwater as well as in coal ash.
State officials will continue to collect and analyze the results of water samples from wells near other Duke Energy coal ash facilities and will make those results available to affected residents and the public.