DEQ gives legislative update on coal ash cleanup

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 - 12:00am

Today, DEQ Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder addressed the State Legislature’s Environmental Review Commission to update legislators on the status of coal ash cleanup in North Carolina. 

The presentation included overviews of ongoing dry ash excavation operations; beneficial use of coal ash rulemaking; groundwater comprehensive site assessments and corrective action plans; survey of private and public water supply wells; decanting/dewatering, seeps, and permitting; enforcement activities; and draft classifications. 

Excavation of coal ash began just eight months after the coal ash law was enacted and is now underway at five Duke Energy facilities including: Riverbend, Dan River, Sutton, Asheville, and Roger’s (Cliffside). To date, more than 4.3 million tons of coal ash has been excavated and removed to safe storage or beneficial reuse projects. 

In accordance with the coal ash law, DEQ tested all private and public water supply wells within 1,500 of each coal ash impoundment for coal ash constituents. Out of the 476 wells sampled, 424 well owners (89%) received a “do not drink” health risk evaluation from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Out of the 424 DHHS “do not drink” recommendations, 369 (87%) were due to vanadium and/or hexavalent chromium. Out of all the water supply wells sampled, only 12 wells exceeded the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) levels, which are the levels used by the federal government to regulate of all city water supplies in the U.S. Of the 12 wells that contained SDWA exceedances, seven were for lead and five for arsenic. Typically, lead exceedances are due to poor well construction. Arsenic exceedances could be naturally occurring or an indicator of coal ash contamination; a final determination has not been made in these instances. 

Assistant Secretary Reeder also provided an overview of DHHS’s hexavalent chromium and vanadium health screening levels. While both contaminants can be naturally occurring in North Carolina groundwater, DHHS uses levels of .07 parts per billion (ppb) for hexavalent chromium and 0.3 ppb for vanadium for its “do not drink” recommendations. In comparison, California and North Carolina share the lowest groundwater standard for hexavalent chromium in the country at 10 ppb. Only 8 states in the U.S. have groundwater standards for vanadium, and the federal government does not require city water supplies to monitor for vanadium. 

More than 70% of public water systems in the United States that have sampled for hexavalent chromium and vanadium would exceed the DHHS screening levels. Assistant Secretary Reeder emphasized the well water that received “do not drink” recommendations from DHHS is likely to contain similar levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium as most North Carolina city water. 

The presentation also included an overview of decanting and dewatering activities, as well as a summary of the draft coal ash impoundment classification process. New information submitted to DEQ by Duke Energy has resulted in the addition of a small coal ash impoundment at the Roxboro facility in Person County, which increases the total number of coal ash impoundments in North Carolina to 33.

The presentation detailed the various enforcement activities DEQ has pursued in the wake of the 2014 spill at Dan River. DEQ issued Notice of Violations (NOVs) to Duke Energy for groundwater exceedences at two of its facilities and later assessed a $25.1 million fine, which Duke Energy immediately challenged in court. Assistant Secretary Reeder pointed out a memo enacted by the Perdue Administration that was the linchpin of Duke Energy’s case. Contextual e-mails made it clear that the intent of memo was to absolve Duke from NOVs and civil penalties associated with groundwater contamination at its coal ash facilities as long as the utility agreed to eventually remediate the problem. The 2011 memo was the reason the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office told DEQ it had no choice but to settle. Duke Energy settled the case for $7 million plus accelerated remediation at four of its coal ash facilities.

In the coming months, DEQ expects to receive from Duke Energy all the information it needs to make final determinations on when each coal ash impoundment should be closed. DEQ will finalize its proposed classificiations upon conclusion of the robust public participation process during which the agency will hold14 public meetings and receive written comments.

DEQ is also waiting on additional groundwater data from Duke Energy to determine whether its coal ash ponds are impacting any nearby public or private drinking water supplies. If DEQ determines that groundwater standards in a well have been exceeded and that a coal ash pond is the source of that exceedance, Duke Energy will be required to provide the residents with an alternative water supply.

You may view the PowerPoint presentation here
You may watch a video of Reeder’s full presentation here.