With rivers running at record-high levels, multiple coal ash pits across the Carolinas are at risk of breaching and unleashing lead, mercury, selenium, arsenic and other carcinogens into our waterways. Though problems posed by coal ash pits have long been known, Hurricane Florence puts into stark relief the need to better secure these potential environmental hazards as soon as possible.
It’s also a good reason to take a hard look at the true costs of using coal as fuel.
So far, one coal ash landfill was breached at a closed Duke Energy power station near Wilmington, where some coal ash may have flowed into a former retention pond next to the Cape Fear River. Duke later said testing concluded water quality was unaffected.
Flood waters also overflowed three other Duke ash pits along the Neuse River near Goldsboro, N.C. Duke says none is an imminent threat. The energy giant, which has been working for years to line, seal and monitor old ash pits, plans to secure and close all its dumps by 2029 under a legal settlement. It was fined $102 million for spilling some 39,000 tons of toxic ash into the Dan River in 2014.
The river, a source of drinking water in North Carolina and Virginia, was fouled for about 70 miles by the spill of which only about 10 percent was recovered to avoid stirring up contaminated sediments containing lead and other heavy metals. Duke spokesman Bill Norton said no long-term effects on wildlife and the environment have been proven.
Along the Waccamaw River near Conway, Santee Cooper and private contractors are working feverishly to shore up a coal ash pit at risk of breaching near its former Grainger power station, with the river predicted to crest nearly a foot higher than during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood waters will likely be “within inches” of the top of dikes impounding the ash, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.
Under a 2013 legal agreement with environmental groups and the state, Santee Cooper also agreed to clean up and close its coal ash pits, and has spent more than $130 million toward those efforts so far. Gore said the Grainger cleanup was on track to be completed later this year. A breach, however, could endanger marine life as far away as Winyah Bay.
Frank Holleman, the attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who represented plaintiffs in the South Carolina coal ash case, told reporter Glenn Smith said there are also concerns about Duke pits being breached in Darlington County and near Lumberton, N.C.
Duke reported no problems at those sites Wednesday.
Much progress has been made in remediating coal ash pits in recent years, according environmental groups, but some pits operated by Duke and Dominion Energy, mostly in North Carolina, are still at risk. A breach could send pollution flowing into South Carolina by way of the Pee Dee River Basin. Dominion, which is in negotiations to buy SCE&G parent SCANA Corp., unfortunately has yet to commit to a cleanup plan.
The only safe ways to dispose of the stuff are by excavating it or moving it to capped and lined pits away from bodies of water. But the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration has ill-advisedly eased cleanup rules to give utilities more time to deal with the costs, which can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, The Washington Post reported this summer. The states and environmental groups, however, should keep pushing to avert a disaster. Cleaning up a large spill of coal ash after a pit is breached by a river is virtually impossible.
Both the historic rains of October 2015 and Hurricane Matthew the following year were close calls for the Grainger site near Conway. Though South Carolina has been a regional leader in remediating coal ash pits, there’s more work to be done, and now is no time to let up.
Combined, Santee Cooper, SCE&G and Duke have removed about 5.6 million tons of coal ash from South Carolina sites at risk from flooding in recent years, but about 14 million more tons will need to be moved over the next decade.
All of this is a reminder to keep pushing for environmental protections. And don’t forget about the costs of cleaning up coal ash pits the next time someone tries to sell you on the benefits of “clean coal.”