Coal Ash Lessons from Hurricane Florence

Flood waters from Hurricane Florence spilled over an earthen dike at Sutton Lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station.

Last month pounding rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a Duke Energy landfill, releasing some 2,000 cubic yards of soil and coal ash. Although Duke declared that the majority of displaced ash was collected in a ditch and haul road surrounding the landfill, North Carolina news media reported the “possible release” of material into the L.V. Sutton Power Plant cooling lake. Later, floodwaters from the Cape Fear River inundated the power station with a foot of water in places.

Environmentalists emphasized the danger of Duke’s practice of disposing of coal ash near waterways throughout North and South Carolina. “After this storm, we hope that Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it to remove the ash from these unlined pits,” said a Southern Environmental Law Center spokesman.

As I predicted here, the incident was sure to impact the debate over coal ash disposal in Virginia. And it has. The headline to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article today tells the tale: “Hurricane’s lessons add pressure for solution to Dominion coal-ash storage.”

Hurricane Florence “punished North Carolina and swamped at least one utility coal ash storage pond in its path next to the Cape Fear River,” stated the article. Then followed a quote from SELC attorney Nathan Benforado during a hearing of a General Assembly Labor and Commerce subcommittee: “Hurricane Florence is a wake-up call.”

A wake-up call? Benforado does have a point. Regulators need to consider the dangers of rare but recurring extreme weather events for coal ash disposal just as they do for electric grid planning. But a lot of relevant material didn’t make it into the Times-Dispatch article. Virginians need to know… the rest of the story.

First the background: The General Assembly subcommittee is studying how Dominion Energy Virginia should dispose of 27 million cubic yards of coal ash buried in ponds and pits at four of its coal-fired power plants: Possum Point, Bremo, Chesterfield, and Chesapeake. Under old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Dominion had dumped the coal combustion residue into large pits and mixed the material with water to keep down fugitive dust. After two major spills at other locations, including one at a Duke facility, the EPA wrote new regulations designed to prevent more spills. Dominion proposed de-watering its coal ash, consolidating the material into a single pit at each facility, and capping the pits with a synthetic liner to keep off rainwater.

SELC has raised at least two sets of concerns about the Dominion proposal. First, says the environmental group, there is nothing to prevent underground water from migrating through the ash pits, collecting heavy metals leached from the ash, and reaching public waters. Second, the proposed pits are located close to public waterways, hence they are vulnerable to erosion or inundation during extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence. SELC wants Dominion to remove the coal ash by truck or rail and bury it in lined landfills on higher ground. Dominion has said that the SELC proposal could cost billions of dollars. SELC has responded that recycling the ash into cement and cinderblocks could cut the cost dramatically. Dominion is now evaluating that alternative.

So, what exactly happened at Duke’s Sutton plant? Did the spillage and inundation create a human or environmental hazard? And knowing that conditions at each power plant are unique, is Sutton comparable to any of Dominion’s power plants? What lessons can we extract?

Duke spokesman Bill Norton told me that the hurricane caused incidents at two power plants — Sutton and, less publicized, H.F. Lee.

At Sutton the company had extracted four million tons of coal ash for placement in a landfill — precisely the solution the SELC and other environmental groups had called for. About three million tons remained when the hurricane hit. Norton described the scene as an “active construction site” and, thus, more vulnerable than the cap-in-place arrangement it has proposed for some of its other facilities. Pounding hurricane rain eroded the containment berm, releasing coal ash equivalent in volume to two-thirds that of an Olympic swimming pool. Flood waters from a swollen Cape Fear River also inundated the cooling lake  and overtopped a steel wall erected as a temporary structure. Other than the landfill erosion, however, the coal ash remained stable and the waters receded.

Water samples taken from the Cape Fear River showed that the floodwaters had washed away some “cenospheres,” lightweight, hollow beads comprised of alumina and silica that are environmentally benign, but not the heavier combustion residue which contains potentially toxic heavy metals. None of Duke’s tests found heavy metals in the water that exceeded state safety standards. Independent tests conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality came to the same conclusion.

At the H.F. Lee power plant site, the coal ash basins had been inactive so long that they had grown over with forest. These basins also were inundated by floodwaters but Duke and NCDEQ tests have shown no heavy metal levels exceeding state safety standards.

The coal ash at both Sutton and H.F. Lee was sitting in storage basins built in accordance with the old EPA regulations. Duke was in the process of complying with the new regs at Sutton and had slated H.F. Lee for future action. Neither facility resembled the cap-in-place proposals that Duke prefers for some of its coal ash ponds and that Dominion also prefers for its power stations. With the cap-in-place solution, the coal ash is first de-watered, largely eliminating any additional threat of groundwater contamination, and buried on the property. An impermeable synthetic liner placed on top of the ash pit prevents infiltration by rainwater.

Benforado conceded that the Sutton incident may not be applicable to either Dominion’s Bremo or Possum Point power stations where the coal ash is being placed in pits at higher elevations than the nearby James and Potomac rivers. But he said the conditions are comparable to Dominion’s low-lying Chesterfield and Chesapeake plants. Impermeable caps on the coal ash pits would prevent rainwater from waterlogging the coal ash, but he said they would not prevent erosion of berms on the perimeter.

Bacon’s bottom line: Given the experience of the Sutton and H.F. Lee plants in North Carolina, we know that hurricanes can erode and inundate low-lying coal ash pits. But we should not leap to conclusions. At Sutton, Duke Energy was removing coal ash to another location — just as environmentalists desired — leaving the remaining ash ponds exposed and vulnerable to rainfall of historic proportions. Duke’s largest coal ash basins would take “decades” to excavate, says Norton. Capping them in place would significantly reduce their vulnerability and lower the risk of spillage.

There is no ideal, once-size-fits-all remedy for the long-term disposal of coal ash. Each site has unique geological and engineering considerations. Every solution involves trade-offs between cost and risk. Virginia legislators and regulators need to take those realities into account.

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16 responses to “Coal Ash Lessons from Hurricane Florence

  1. For the record, when I wrote, “a lot of relevant material didn’t make it into the Times-Dispatch article,” I’m not blaming the Times-Dispatch. The reporter was covering a General Assembly subcommittee hearing and reported what he heard. I’m simply adding perspectives that never made it into that hearing.

    Also, it strikes me that there are legitimate questions to ask about coal ash disposal at the Chesapeake and Chesterfield power plants. If I were a regulator, I’d be want to know more about the construction of Dominion’s proposed cap-in-place coal ash basins, particularly on the perimeter. Are there berms? How wide are the berms? How well will they stand up to erosion under hurricane conditions? If they do erode, how much coal ash might wash away? And if some coal ash does wash away in monster flood conditions, as a practical matter, remembering that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” what is the likelihood that enough heavy metals will leach out to pose a threat to the environment or public health?

    There are many layers to any rational discussion about coal ash disposal, and I fear we are not discussing all of them.

    • and we are not discussing them, why? All the questions you bring up – SHOULD have been addressed in any reasonable coal ash study – so why weren’t they?

      My view is that it’s because Dominion didn’t want them brought up and the regulators in Va are cowed by Dominion’s perceived proclivity for going to the GA to neuter the regulators.

      We need an objective 3rd party to dig unfettered into the good, bad and ugly and render a report that no one can claim is biased for or against Dominion.

      I don’t blame Dominion. They’re going to do whatever they can to protect their own interests. But the State and the GA have a responsibility to rise above that and look out for the interests of taxpayers. It’s downright scandalous that they don’t.

  2. Don’t have a problem with recognizing the various site-specific issues. DO have a problem with Dominion doing the studies and not moving forward because it is “complicated”.

    When we buy tires or get an oil-change, on the bill is a “disposal fee” and part of that money goes to clean up existing tire pile and abandoned oil tanks. Part of what we pay for fuel – goes to pay for cleaning up leaking gasoline tanks. We charge stormwater and wastewater fees…

    It’s ironic that we want to spend the excess profits – right now – on things like grid “reliability” and other questionable ROI things but we spend years trying to figure out what to do about coal ash or use any of those excess profits for coal ash cleanup.

  3. It’s not so much that Jim Bacon can’t see the forest for the trees. Jim can’t see the trees for the bark.

    Jim’s complex analyses of the details and nuance of the current coal ash situation in Virginia misses the bigger point …

    Only an unconscionable pack of greed-blind jackwagons would have piled up uncountable tons of toxic coal ash right next to major public waterways for decades.

    Next you’ll tell me that these same jackwagons built nuclear power plants on an earthquake fault line.

    God knows what new ticking time bombs Dominion is putting around the Commonwealth as we speak.

  4. Only an unconscionable pack of greed-blind jackwagons would have piled up uncountable tons of toxic coal ash right next to major public waterways for decades.

    Those “greed-blind jackwagons” would be us, the ratepayers. Given what everyone knew back then, the decision to bury the coal ash near the power stations made eminent sense. Every utility across the country did the same thing, and the SCC never would have approved a more expensive option. Had Dominion proposed building a special, lined and capped landfill miles away to receive coal ash, you would have been among the very first to denounce the company for padding its expenditures so they could earn more money!

    We know a lot more about the risks than we did when the Environmental Protection Agency made decisions on how to properly dispose of coal-ash. I say that we know more about the risks, but, actually, I’m not sure that we do. I think we exaggerate the risks. Duke Energy tests, and independent NCDEQ tests confirmed them, that contaminants in the Cape Fear River never surpassed state thresholds. From a pollution point of view, the hurricane was a non-event.

    • Actually it is mainly the southeastern states, including Virginia, that typically used the liquid slurry impoundment disposal method for coal ash. Not quite sure what everyone else did, but I believe in other states, dry handling of the ash was more typical. So we are dealing with a Virginia/WV/NC/Tennessee regional eco-issue.

  5. There are over 1,000 coal ash ponds in the US. The majority are over 40 years old, and most do not have monitoring to detect leaks of toxic pollutants. None had any regulation at all before the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in Tennessee that poured a billion gallons of slurry all over eastern Tennessee. Authorities estimate that it would have cost the Tennessee Valley Authority $50 million to remediate the pond. It ended up costing over $1 billion to dig the ash-mud out of the river bottoms, and some people lost their lives and houses were destroyed.

    Virginia Is home to 32 coal ash impoundments containing at least 4.4 billion gallons of waste. 4 are dams that are considered a significant hazard, one considered in poor condition. The national evaluation was done by the EPA after the TN dam break, but it took a second disaster, this one in NC in 2014, for the EPA to draw up and propose regulation. By 2015 a remediation schedule was in place but many felt the Obama regs didn’t go far enough. So here we are now with an administration that is rewriting rules to be less protective and cheaper for industry.

    My question is … what has allowed us to tolerate these risks? Is it because over 70% of the pits are in low income/low influence neighborhoods so no one paid attention? Is it because corporations rule the politics of their own regulation? Is it because the conservative ascendency has made government the boogieman, declaring all regulation too intrusive and expensive? Maybe no one is willing to pay.

    So all you conservatives out there … how do we fix the ‘free market’ so it doesn’t destroy our health and the earth itself in the name of profits? Who or what will constrain the market when it chooses to lie and to damage communities rather than be responsible citizens? DJR has a point!

    • Honest conservatives believe that protecting property rights is a core responsibility of government. Right up there with providing for the national defense. Therefore, preventing anybody (including corporations) from polluting and thereby taking property rights of others is a legitimate role of government.

      Also, as far as conservatives … you should take a long, hard look at long time Democratic state senator Dick Saslaw’s VPAP page. Dominion money pours through that man’s accounts like a river at flood stage. Yet, I don’t hear any of Virginia’s elected Democratic politicians disowning Tricky Dick Saslaw. Where is State Senator Jennifer Wexton’s indignation at her colleague’s decades long love affair with Dominion?

  6. Who knows what to believe on environmental matters? Much of what is spouted by environmental groups is designed to raise money and scare elected officials, just like other interest groups do, both on the left and on the right. Wild predictions about global warning were made and many did not come true. But instead of seeing a reasonable discussion of why some predictions did not come true, we see more wild predictions.

    And we (or at least I) see environmental groups often closing their eyes to non-crusade level environmental problems such as the City of Alexandria dumping raw sewerage into the Potomac regularly. Is it because of politics? I think it could be.

    Environmentalists worshipped the coming of the Silver Line and dense development in Tysons. Yet the developers walked back from many commitments made to get Tysons approved. Many of these commitments related to storm water management and SOV trip reductions. Because of Tysons growth, which is lagging forecasts by considerable margins, the increase in motor vehicle traffic to and from Tysons is crushing local streets in McLean and Vienna. I didn’t think idling cars were good for the environment.

    And then why would anyone expect the MSM to report anything fully and fairly when their political agendas are at issue?

    While I see problems with the coal ash ponds, why should I believe this isn’t just one more way to raise money and promote a left-wing agenda?

    • There have been numerous coal ash disasters including a doozy in Tennessee 10 years ago. Coal ash discharges into fragile waterways is a matter of historical fact not theory.

      There are also multiple good ways to fix the coal ash problem – recycling dry ash, inland burial in lined pits, etc. There is no equally pragmatic way to fix global warming.

      • So why don’t we as a society spend money on fixing environmental problems that are addressable, such as a coal ash and Alexandria’s raw sewerage? Market forces seem to be bringing renewable energy use up and some fossil fuel use down. Instead of funding climate change study after climate change study, why don’t we concentrate some effort at making LEDs less expensive?

        I don’t think environmentalists want to fix things. They want money and power. But saying that makes them no better than any other interest group.

  7. “ From a pollution point of view, the hurricane was a non-event.” SORRY ..TRUTH IS WE JUST DON’T KNOW YET. I will explain what i see as a reasonable conclusion about that below.

    FIRST … I am disappointed in the answers to my question of HOW! Are the environmentalists always raising money? Yes, that’s because HOW today means lawsuits and the suits and the scientific findings behind them are expensive to accomplish. If there are good ways to fix coal ash …why did we ignore that until 2008 and the Tenn. Doozy spill, and why 10 years later we haven’t actually accomplished anything? Finally, phasing out the fossil industries is the primary answer to climate change but look what has happened since 1985 when Exxon’s scientists put out the same warnings coming from NASA, warnings that were picked up by the environmentalists. Where was either side when Dominion choose to build those nukes on that fault line?

    The river measurements … Exaggerate the risks, or just measure differently? The company said. “Water samples captured on Friday (upstream) and downstream of the Sutton plant site show little to no impact to river water quality. The environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance said its test showed arsenic levels in the Cape Fear River were more than 70 times above the state’s drinking-water standard. The next day the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said “Water samples taken near Duke’s Sutton power plant site in Wilmington show “all metals below state water quality standards,”

    Certainly each had a point of view and you should remember that NC’s DEQ had strong ties to DUKE power that were investigated and taken to task by the Court.

    So …. When and where the samples are taken makes a difference …whether the samples are actually diluted by the excess water etc, but academics say we can’t tell the results from early water samples. One who worked on measuring the Tenn spill says … “Testing in open water at the time of the spill showed very low amounts of contaminants because coal ash, he said, does not easily leach into the water. It takes time for the heavy metals that come with the ash to become an environmental problem. It was only after the team tested the sediment and extracted the water trapped there that they found a large concentration of contaminants.”

    “What matters over time is how much coal ash has been released into the river, what happened to the coal ash, how much it migrated along the river. Where was it deposited? Is it in the breach area, or is it elsewhere? That is the real issue and the critical question that will need to be addressed to determine if this spill had an impact or not.”

    Can we at least agree on how to measure and stop putting lipstick on the pig?

    • “If there are good ways to fix coal ash …why did we ignore that until 2008 and the Tenn. Doozy spill, and why 10 years later we haven’t actually accomplished anything?”

      That is EXACTLY the right question to ask.

      • For many years, EPA classified coal ash as a non-hazardous waste, which means there was zero control. It was considered safe and any use or disposal method was allowed.

        That finally changed during Obama administration, due to multiple coal-ash eco-disasters. EPA created new rules, saying exisiting impoundments must be drained and capped, and I believe newly generated ash must be disposed in lined landfills.

        >>The controvery we are experiencing in Virginia, is that enviro groups are vehemently opposed to the Obama-era EPA rules allowing cap-in-place after draining of the older impoundments. The enviro groups are demanding ultra-expensive excavation and relocation to lined landfills, for the older waste sites.

        Meanwhile progress has been made by Dominion in draining and preparing for closure of the older sites.

        As for what Virginia should do, assuming Virginia/Dominion has some environmental stewardship in its blood (questionable assumption) is very site specific. However, it is almost useless to look at the science now, because the issue has long since transcended reality and moved into the La-La land of divisive state polititcs.

        • The Obama era CCR does not change coal ash status from non hazardous. Thus it is allowed to be used for beneficial reuse – which includes non encapsulated backfill uses under roads (if you take time to read the rule). What people don’t understand is these reuses require precise engineering specifications which require the ash to be sorted by particular grain size. Wet ash storage makes this a costly enterprise because the ash must all be dried (which can cause it to be airborne, thus the wet pond) and then mechanically sorted. Too many people don’t understand reality when they keep saying the Dominion report to the General Assembly was BS because of the cost analysis.
          And I don’t own Dom stock, never worked for Dom, or consulted for Dom. But I do read shit before I speak out in public.
          There is also the issue of giving the ash to construction/ concrete companies who would store it without much regulation – at that point ash is not a waste but a product, in piles all over the state. Plus it would be moved in hundred of thousands of truck trips, again without much regulation, all over the state. Is that better or is keeping it contained to already blighted areas better?

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