The official North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality draft ash impoundment classification report released on Dec. 31, 2015, has downgraded the risk level for the Belews Steam Station ash impondment to a a low-to-intermediate ranking.
The Belews impoundment had been ranked as a high risk priority in staff reports prepared for the final report which were leaked to the press by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in mid-December.
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.
“These were produced by the staff who are most familiar with the risk these sites pose to the public,” he added in December. “If a politician changes it the public will have some very serious questions as to why these recommendations changed.”
DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher said Friday that the preliminary documents were actually created on Sept. 30.
“The draft proposed classification process was an iterative process taking place over several months with new data coming in constantly,” he said. “The document was an early draft of a prioritization spreadsheet and only represents a snapshot of the complicated scientific analysis DEQ is conducting.”
DEQ officials said the final draft report released last week was based on information available to the department in December, and noted that impoundments classified as high or intermediate risk must be excavated but low priority impoundments can be dealt with through “environmentally protective, less costly options.” Closure costs could be passed on to rate payers.
“It is also important to note that these are not the final proposed classifications,” reads the executive summery of the report, noting that DEQ will provide a written explanation of their classifications within 30 days, will publish a summery of that explanation for three weeks in every county where a coal ash facility is located, will hold a public meeting in each county where a coal ash facility is located, and consider public comments before developing final classifications.
“Public input and involvement is a critically important part of the classification process,” reads the summery. “All draft proposed classifications are subject to change base on public comment, including consideration of scientific and technical data gained through the public input process.”
A statewide citizens group, Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash, slammed the most recent rankings Wednesday and released a list of guiding principles for dealing with coal ash and demanded that Duke Energy and state decision makers work closely with North Carolina communities to ensure they are compensated for damages to their property and health due to coal ash pollution and protected from future harm.
The Alliance formed in late July as a way for residents from across the state to connect in solidarity in their demands for an end to the coal ash crisis.
This week they released their Unifying Principles, launched a new website and a video in response to the rankings.
The principles, which were agreed upon by hundreds of residents living next to Duke’s existing and proposed coal ash dumps, state that all sites should be high priority, no site should be “capped-in-place,” and coal ash should not simply be dumped onto other communities. The alliance demands a transparent, honest decision-making process about coal ash cleanup that directly responds to the concerns of residents most impacted by the toxic pollution and that results in the full compensation, paid for by Duke’s shareholders, of all past, present and future harms caused by the utility’s coal ash.
“At this point, Duke Energy and the state are thinking more about profit than the health and well-being of people that actually live in the communities next to Duke’s plants,” says David Hairston, a resident of the Walnut Tree community near the Belews Creek power plant. “They need to come to the communities that are actually affected and see what the living situations are like.”
“Duke’s neighbors can all name multiple individuals who have suffered from devastating illnesses, which have baffled doctors and too often proved fatal,” reflects Caroline Armijo, who grew up near the Belews Creek power plant and has been active in coal ash work for a decade. “Our communities are now rising up together to demand a better way. Duke Energy and DEQ have to take the initiative to actually pursue a long-term solution and work with and for our communities, instead of making backroom decisions that are blatantly fraudulent and corrupt.
“I am disappointed that DEQ and appointed higher-ups overlooked their own staff’s recommendations based on the science of what is best for our citizen’s health and our water sources by playing politics,” she added. “Not only is DEQ ignoring our fundamental rights of clean water and optimal health, but they are neglecting to embrace the future of clean energy, an industry in which North Carolina has excelled over the last decade. We are a national leader in solar and clean energy, but those efforts have been dismantled by Duke and this administration.”
“It is alarming that DEQ leadership altered more than half of the classifications recommended by DEQ’s expert staff in the agency’s own draft report, leaving North Carolinians with the dramatically weakened proposal,” said Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams, who has been active in organizing Stokes County residents to oppose both fracking and coal ash. “This is especially egregious considering that more than 300 homes near Duke Energy’s Allen, Buck, and Belews Creek plants have received ‘do not drink’ orders from the health department and must rely on bottled water. DEQ owes these residents an immediate and clear explanation for the extreme, last-minute changes to the classifications of these coal ash pits.
“Duke’s neighbors believe firmly that the coal ash impoundments near their homes are high-risk,” added Adams. “There is some hope that during the public hearing process DEQ officials will listen to North Carolinians and use the available science to revert the classifications back to high-risk, as that is what Duke’s neighbors and residents across the state demand and need.”
The risk factors of coal ash basins throughout the state were based on three main criteria: structural integrity of the impoundment, impact to surface water, and impact to groundwater.
In the staff reports leaked to the press earlier in December, the Belews facility received low risk classifications for both structural integrity and surface water contamination, but was ranked as a high risk for ground water contamination.
“The coal ash law contains aggressive deadlines for Duke to submit to DEQ data on the extent of groundwater contamination and its impact on private and public wells,” reads the summery. “The Coal Ash Management Act’s requirement that Duke provide to DEQ Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) that include a “description of all exceedances of the groundwater quality standards, including any exceedances that the owner asserts are the result of natural background conditions” was of particular importance for the department to accurately assess the risk associated with groundwater. CAPs for each facility were due to the department in early December. After reviewing the CAP submissions, department staff concluded that Duke had failed to provide sufficient information for some impoundments to support a definitive conclusion as to whether the exceedances of groundwater standards near the coal ash impoundments are the result of natural background. The department notified Duke of the deficiencies in their CAPS and DEQ continues to review information submitted by Duke after the CAMA deadline.”
A Comprehensive Site Assessment (CSA) of the Belews Creek facility conducted in 2015 by HDR Engineering, Inc. of the Carolinas for Duke Energy showed the facility did have some seepage into groundwater noting that some elements, including antimony, iron, manganese, pH, and vanadium, were likely naturally occurring while other elements found in groundwater at the site, including arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadium, chloride, cobalt, thallium, and TDS, “appear to be caused by the source.”
The 2015 CSA found no imminent hazards to public health and safety, but noted that corrective action at the site was required to address soil and groundwater contamination.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.