The 12 minutes spent on the phone with Duke Energy customer service shed no light on how — or if — citizens can learn if they live in an area that could flood if one of the utility’s coal ash basins fails.
In fact, the customer service representative — to her credit, unfailingly polite — didn’t know what an inundation map was.
“It’s not a common question,” she said.
These inundation maps, as they’re known, were drawn by Duke Energy to show the location of these flood-prone areas, which could be devastated should a dam behind a coal ash basin fail.
They are secret — so secret that local emergency management agencies had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the utility to obtain them.
After two minutes or so of hold music, soft jazz, the representative came back on the line.
“This request goes to a separate team,” she said.
My instructions were to email email@example.com.
At press time, we had not received a response.
This secrecy over critically important maps has prompted the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of eight clients, to notify Duke Energy yesterday that it planned to seek an enforcement action against the utility for failing to publicly provide the information for its coal ash sites.
As part of the 2015 federal Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, Duke was required to make public Emergency Action Plans — which include flood maps — for each of its coal ash storage sites where a dam failure would likely result in loss of human life or serious harm to the environment.
There are 10 such facilities in North Carolina: Allen, Asheville, Belews Creek, Cliffside, Dan River, HF Lee, Marshall, Mayo, Roxboro and Weatherspoon. Many of these dams are designated as a high or significant risk by the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
The purpose of the plans and the maps are to tell residents near the plants if they live within a flood zone or other sensitive area. Residents can then prepare for a possible emergency or evacuation should a flood, hurricane or other disaster occur. Duke Energy, the SELC alleges, is the only utility in the country to withhold its inundation maps.
But Duke Energy counters that the information is confidential under statutes protecting homeland security and critical infrastructure. Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the utility does provide full versions of the Emergency Action Plans to counties and cities.
But there’s a catch.
Policy Watch called or emailed all of the county emergency management offices in areas where Duke Energy is storing, even temporarily, coal ash.
Tommy Almond, emergency management director for Gaston County, said his office has the utility’s inundation maps, but could not publicly share them. “To get those, we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement” with Duke Energy, Almond said.
The utility instructed him to refer callers to Duke’s corporate offices in Charlotte for more information. However, the Emergency Action Plans tell residents to call their local emergency managers.
The Allen plant is in Gaston County. Riverbend is as well, but those basins are being excavated and don’t require an inundation plan.
Almond said that although he receives only one or two calls a year, the agreement “puts me in a bad spot.”
“I don’t know if I’m better off knowing” — and having to tell people that he can’t share the information — “or not knowing,” he said. “I do try to help people out and walk right up to the legal line.”
He told Policy Watch that he has seen the maps and believes there is minimal flood risk from the basins to area residences. Lake Wylie could see a small rise, he said.
Gaston County is sandwiched between two nuclear plants — McGuire in nearby Huntersville and Catawba over the border in York, S.C. Duke has provided pamphlets and other information for nearby residents.
“We’ll tell you if you live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant,” Almond said. “But we won’t tell you if you live in an inundation zone.”
Karyn Yaussy, Catawba County Emergency Management Coordinator, referred Policy Watch to Duke’s toll-free number — 800-559-3853.
“I hope you understand my need to be cautious because it is considered Security Sensitive Information related to critical infrastructure that could be detrimental to the public if it falls into the wrong hands,” Yaussy wrote in an email.
“At the same time, I understand your wishes to see these Duke Energy plans and maps and will seek the advice of our county attorney on whether we can make these plans available for your viewing.”
When Policy Watch told SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman of these agreements, he said, “This action underscores the arrogance of Duke Energy and its determination to keep these maps from the public. These emergency responders protect the public and work for the public.”
Sheehan has not responded to questions about the non-disclosure agreements or the statute that makes the maps secret.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lists several classes of documents that are considered “security sensitive.” These include information about existing “critical infrastructure” that relates to the “production, transportation, transmission or distribution of energy.”
Also sensitive is “information that could be useful to a person planning an attack on the infrastructure and does not simply give the location of the critical infrastructure.
There is no public access to an image of these documents, but FERC says the public can file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Without a waiver from FERC, public utilities still may have to make the documents available in county public reading rooms or from companies upon request.
Keith Acree, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, said he would check on the state’s legal obligations, but had not responded by press time. (We’ll update the story as the information becomes available.) In the meantime, Policy Watch has filed a public records request with state emergency management officials for the unredacted Emergency Action Plan, including the inundation maps.
Sheehan did say the Emergency Action Plan is only one part of the utility’s steps “to prepare for an unlikely event.” Sheehan also said that Duke engineers conduct weekly inspections, overseen by state regulators, she said, and the utility maintains the basins.
However, Duke does seem open to reconsidering its stance. Sheehan said the utility reviewed state statutes in managing public information around critical infrastructure. “While that drove decisions,” Sheehan said, “we will review the approach taken by other utilities and ask state regulators for further guidance.