The coal ash basins at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek steam station have been ranked as a high risk priority in a draft report prepared by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) which was shared with the media this week by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman said his organization obtained the report as part of ongoing litigation they are involved in over coal ash issues in the state.
“In the documents they produced to us as part of the legal proceedings we discovered the rankings for all of the coal ash sites in the state,” he said, noting that the rankings were created on Nov. 30. “These were prepared by the professional staff at DEQ under the requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act. We got that document directly from the DEQ.”
But DEQ spokesperson Stephanie Hawco criticized the early release of the draft report by the SELC, and warned that the information in them is preliminary and may not be part of the final report.
“We saw the SELC’s latest attempt to circumvent the coal ash management process by releasing incomplete information out of context,” she said. “It is premature and irresponsible to treat one of many early drafts as a definitive plan before DEQ has completed its analysis of the extensive scientific data that will inform the final report. The classifications will be released by Dec. 31 in accordance with the coal ash management law.”
In the released draft report, DEQ classifies the Belews Creek Active Ash Basin, after all planned modifications, as a high risk facility and and recommends its closure noting that it has seasonal high water level violations. The report ranks the current dam safety as high, but reduces that ranking to low after planned modifications are made. The report ranks groundwater contamination as high, both currently and after planned modifications, and ranks surface water contamination as low.
Holleman said the draft report, which lists 27 of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash lagoons in North Carolina as high risk, represented the best judgment of the DEQ professional staff.
“These were produced by the staff who are most familiar with the risk these sites pose to the public,” he said. “If a politician changes it the public will have some very serious questions as to why these recommendations changed. Everyone should be watching very closely what happens at the end of the year to see if the safety and health of the community and the water is being decided by facts and science.
“DEQ and its professional staff have been observing, regulating and gathering information on these sites for years, even decades,” he added. “Its professional staff, after all of those years of experience, prepared these ratings for the political leadership as their recommendation and they put it into writing as a spreadsheet. This report was prepared just three weeks ago. It is the most recent, non-political evaluation.
“DEQ says their political leadership has still not made up their minds,” said Holleman. “We can only hope that by the end of the year they will base a decision on protecting our water and our communities and not base it on a political stance.”
Stokes County residents who have argued for ash removal said they were encouraged by the draft report.
“I am so excited to hear that Belews Creek is included in the list of high-priority sites,” said Carolina Armijo, who has been active in efforts to bring attention to the issue. “This is what we have been working towards as part of the Residents for Coal Ash Clean Up since we first formed in 2012. Granted it will take several years to clean it up, but we are so pleased to learn that the 342 acres will not be capped in place.”
Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert said the company would wait on the final report before making any plans for ash removal.
“We cannot speak to a draft, internal document from DEQ that predates a significant amount of data that we continue to provide to the agency,” said Culbert. “The next milestone in this comprehensive process is for DEQ to release its proposed basin classifications by the end of the year. In the meantime, we continue to make great progress safely closing ash basins in ways that protect people and the environment.”
Duke Energy spokeswoman Zenica Chatman said once the final report is released, it will go though a period of public comment before the DEQ sends final classifications to the Coal Ash Management Commission.
“If the Commission fails to act, then the agency final classifications stand,” she said. “Then Duke Energy incorporates the final classifications into our proposed ash basin closure plans that also get additional public input and agency/Commission review.”
Holleman said the process was less clear because there currently is no Coal Ash Management Commission.
“A North Carolina court has struck it down as unconstitutional,” he said. “That decision is before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Until the supreme court rules, we really do not know what the process will be.”
He noted that the SELC was involved in enforcing environmental issues through a variety of state and federal laws.
“The DEQ and Coal Ash Commission will not necessarily have the last word,” he said. “The federal Clean Water Act applies to all places in the United States. There are also state anti-pollution laws. The North Carolina Coal Ash Management Act does not interfere with the applications of those laws and those are the laws we have been seeking to enforce.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.