Duke denies it will build a coal ash landfill at Lee, even though draft permit allows it

Duke denies it will build a coal ash landfill at Lee, even though draft permit allows it

- in Environment, Featured Articles
Duke Energy demolished the HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, but the coal ash remains. The utility plans to recycle the ash onsite, a change from its previous disposal plan that would have shipped it to the Colon mine in Lee County. (Photo: Duke Energy)

The line is easy to miss. On Page 2 of a highly technical 53-page document involving Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant, are four words: “new lined ash landfill.”

Those four words, inserted in a draft wastewater discharge permit issued by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, could  come back to haunt the people of Goldsboro and those living downstream of the plant. There was never supposed to be a new landfill at Lee plant, which sits along the flood-prone Neuse River and within the 100-year floodplain.

Just last year, the utility concluded that it needed to excavate the 5.9 million tons of ash from the basins and recycle it in the former Colon clay mine in Lee County. “Studies noted the possible risk of flooding at the plant site,” Duke said at the time, “which makes excavation the best option for long-term safe storage of the material.”

And yet, the draft wastewater permit — whose public comment period ends Thursday — allows the utility to build that landfill. A factsheet accompanying the permit clearly states that “in the future, Duke Energy proposes to convert the active ash basin into a lined coal ash landfill.”

The reason the new landfill is mentioned in this permit at all is because leachate, essentially runoff, from the lined landfill would eventually wind up in the Neuse River. According to the DEQ factsheet, the leachate from the landfill would be collected in two 500,000 gallon tanks, then routed to a groundwater wastewater treatment system before flowing into the Neuse.

This week, after inquiries from NCPW and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, Duke Energy reiterated that it would not build the landfill, even though the permit, as written, greenlights such a project. The language in the draft permit, explained Duke Energy spokesperson Zenica Chatman, was included after updates to the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, “when the company was exploring a range of options to safely excavate the material.”

“When we submitted our permit application that evaluation was still underway, and this language was included in the permit to preserve those options,” Chatman said. “I’m not sure where we’ll end up on the final language.”

“This language is specific to a possible conversion of the excavated semi-active ash basin into a landfill. The language is not an approval and allowing for a landfill leachate discharge, in no way gives them permission to put a landfill there,” said DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher.

If Duke decides to pursue a landfill, DEQ would have to approve it, which would include a public comment period. The Solid Waste Division would be in charge of permitting the landfill.

Starr said Duke’s assurances must be formalized in the current permit. “What they need to do is tomorrow at the public hearing, they should get up and say to DEQ, ‘Remove this language.’ For now the permit is what we have to go on.”

It doesn’t appear Duke will ask for the provision to be struck. “I think our comments for tomorrow’s public hearing will really focus on the importance of these permits in our work to safely close ash basins,” Chatman said. “The draft permit includes strict standards that ensure people and the environment remain protected and are consistent with federal guidelines that apply to countless businesses that manage wastewater.”

Although the permit has not changed, this week the utility nonetheless announced a new plan to recycle the ash onsite instead of at the Colon mine. Any remaining material “will be relocated to a safe, permanent storage solution off-site,” the statement read. The Colon mine remains a “contingency site.”

The change in the recycling plan at the Lee plant could signal that the utility is concerned about future ash disposal and recycling at the Colon and Brickhaven mines, the latter of which is in Chatham County. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has asked a superior court judge to issue a cease-and-desist order to stop DEQ from allowing nearly 20 million tons of ash in the mines.

At issue is whether the extensive excavation required to dispose of the ash essentially transforms the mines into landfills. If that’s the case, the mines would be subject to stronger environmental regulations, including installation of a liner. A hearing was held last month, although Judge Carl Fox has not yet issued his order.

If Duke were to recycle the ash at the Lee plant, there would still be limitations on its location in the floodplain. “We are certainly taking this into account as we continue to evaluate a specific location for the unit at HF Lee to ensure that it operates safely during extreme weather events,” Chatman said.

“There’s still a lot of questions,” Starr said. “The only thing I have that is actual fact is this permit. If it doesn’t change, that’s what they’ll be permitted to do.”

NC DEQ is holding a public hearing to accept comments on the draft permit Thursday, Dec. 15, at 6 p.m. at the Wayne County Center, 208 W. Chestnut St., Goldsboro. Speaker registration begins at 5 p.m.