LUMBERTON — After a first-hand look at the coal ash ponds at the retired Weatherspoon Electric Power Plant in Lumberton, state Reps. Charles Graham and Garland Pierce say they are less fearful that coal ash could pollute the Lumber River.
“This certainly is not what I expected to see,” Graham said as he walked over hardened ash covered with vegetation and glanced into almost totally dry-ash retention basins. “I expected to see ponds with lots of water and some kind of sludge, or something like that.”
Pierce told Duke Energy officials conducting the tour that he expected to see the same.
‘This is certainly a learning process for me,” Pierce said. “I came here to see this for myself because I want to make sure the river and residents of Robeson County remain safe.”
Graham asked to meet with Duke officials at the plant after constituents raised concerns that coal ash in a pond on the Weatherspoon site could seep into the Lumber River. Public concern about the potential for Lumber River pollution heightened after a coal ash spill from a Duke Energy facility in Eden last month left about 70 miles of the Dan River coated in a toxic gray sludge.
Lumber River advocates want the coal ash from the pond moved to a lined facility to prevent contaminants from leaking into groundwater. Three contaminants — iron, thallium and manganese — have been found over time to extend state limits in a groundwater monitoring well near the Lumber River, according to internal state Department of Environment and Natural Resources emails obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The Southern Environmental Law Center is spearheading the legal efforts to shut down Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.
North Carolina has 14 coal -fired plants and at least 32 ash dumps. The coal ash is often stores in unlined, leaky pits near public waterways,.
The spill in Eden has resulted in Gov. Pat McCrory requiring Duke Energy to provide information concerning what is being done to close ash ponds across the state. A spokesman for the company told The Robesonian that the information will be provided by the deadline of Saturday.
During Monday’s tour of the Weatherspoon site, Duke officials told the visiting legislators that coal ash is maintained within a “closed loop” waste treatment system within the plant’s boundaries and never discharged into the Lumber River. The river is more than a quarter of a mile from the river.
The officials emphasized that the type of accident that occurred at the Eden plant could never happen at the Weatherspoon site.
“That was a completely different situation. The cause of the spill was a break in a storm water pipe that was located beneath the ash basin,” said Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy spokesman. ” There is no other plant with a configuration of a storm water pipe underneath the basin.”
Duke officials say they have not yet made a decision on the best way to close the coal ash pond at Weatherspoon. The plant was retired in 2011 and demolished in November.
The possible methods of closure include: a full excavation, requiring the removal of all the ash; a cap in place, where the entire basin would be covered with a synthetic liner; and a hybrid method, involving a combination of a cap and excavation.
“In light of the events (at the Eden facility) we are re-evaluating closing plans for all our plants in six states,” Brooks said. “We were in the process of evaluating Weatherspoon before the spill and we are continuing to do so.”
The 54.5-acre ash pond at Weatherspoon includes sections on the north side that were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. The south side of the ash pond was constructed in 1979.
Graham told Duke officials after the tour that he now has a better understanding of the coal ash issue and is better prepared for when the issue is brought before the General Assembly during its upcoming short session.
“Safety is my major concern,” Graham said. “That’s my whole purpose for being out here today.”