After contamination found in groundwater, DEQ orders full investigation of Chatham County coal ash site

After contamination found in groundwater, DEQ orders full investigation of Chatham County coal ash site

- in Environment, Top Story
A map showing the location of the Brickhaven coal ash repository near Moncure in Chatham County.
This map shows the location of the former Brickhaven mine in Chatham County that now holds 7.3 million tons of coal ash. About 100 people live within a mile of Brickhaven, according to census figures. (Map: Charah)

Groundwater near a coal ash repository in Chatham County has again tested high for contaminants, prompting state environmental officials to require a full assessment of the site.

A former clay mine, Brickhaven lies four miles southeast of Moncure near the Lee County line. Operated by Charah/Green Meadow, based in Louisville, Ky., the facility contains 7.3 million tons of coal ash in lined cells on 145 acres. Since 2015, Duke Energy has excavated and shipped the ash to Brickhaven from its Sutton and Riverbend plants in Wilmington and northwest Charlotte, as part of the facilities’ closure plans.

In a letter dated June 21, the Department of Environmental Quality notified Charah that several monitoring wells showed levels of contaminants in groundwater that exceeded state standards: barium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, vanadium and total dissolved solids. Known as TDS, total dissolved solids are a general indicator of water quality.

The results are in a required semi-annual monitoring report conducted by a Charah contractor. The report was sent to the Department of Environmental Quality on June 9.

Seven of the eight monitoring wells detected exceedances. Levels of chromium peaked at 17 times the state groundwater standard; cobalt levels were more than six times higher. Vanadium concentrations ranged from 25 to 45 times higher than state standards.

Chromium and vanadium can be naturally occurring. However, concentrations of those compounds were well above background levels, which were measured before the ash was deposited.

Lithium and combined radium were also detected at twice pre-ash levels, but no state groundwater standards exist for those constituents.

Charah has not yet responded to questions from Policy Watch.

DEQ spokeswoman Laura Leonard told Policy Watch that the agency doesn’t yet know the source of the contamination. “The requirement for additional assessment work will help to identify potential sources,” she said.

Because of the recent groundwater findings, the Division of Waste Management staff directed Charah to hire a licensed professional geologist to investigate the contamination sources, and, depending on the findings to submit a clean-up plan. The documents are due to DEQ by Aug. 21.

Another round of sampling is also scheduled for next month.

Judy Hogan, president of Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump, said her group welcomed DEQ’s letter. “We are glad that the DEQ is now paying attention publicly to the problems we’ve known about at Brickhaven for some time.”

Environmental advocates have been concerned about the potential for contamination from Brickhaven since the location was announced in late 2014. At that time, under DEQ Secretary John Skvarla and his successor, Donald van der Vaart, the Brickhaven permitting process took just seven months, a comparatively short time for a project of this magnitude. The structural fill was permitted under the timelines established in the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA).

CAMA allows the material to be used in mine reclamation. However in May 2016, three environmental groups argued before an administrative law judge that parts of Brickhaven had never been mined. By permitting Charah to dig up new sites within the mine, the groups argued, DEQ was illegally allowing the company to create small landfills. Those mini-landfills wouldn’t have to comply with stricter solid waste standards.

Judge Melissa Lassiter upheld DEQ’s permits, concluding that the facilities were mines, not landfills. Superior Court Judge Carl Fox overturned Lassiter’s ruling; the EPA also considered the mines to be landfills under federal coal combustion rules.

DEQ prevailed on appeal, which allowed the material to be deposited in new cells.

Charah/Green Meadow also is permitted to deposit coal ash in the Colon Mine in Lee County, but that project has not started.

Concerned citizens say their fears have been confirmed, at least for groundwater. Since water sampling began in 2015, contaminants have been detected above background levels in groundwater and surface water near Brickhaven, according to DEQ. Last summer, tests showed high levels of arsenic, copper, lead, zinc and total dissolved solids in surface water samples taken from a tributary to Gulf Creek. However, those levels have since decreased below state standards, according the most recent sampling.

“The unsuitability of the site, the rush to permit, and the inevitability of landfill failure were a recipe for disaster,” said Therese Vick, community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

Without further analysis it’s impossible to establish a link between the groundwater contamination near Brickhaven or the former Cape Fear coal-fired power plant near Moncure and recent drinking water test results in Chatham County.

Policy Watch reported earlier this month that more than half of 242 drinking water wells tested in Chatham County contained levels of chromium and vanadium were above the state’s health advisory goal, according to researchers from UNC and Virginia Tech.

Researchers are now mapping the wells and their proximity to potential pollution sources. Results should be available later this summer.