LUMBERTON — Stay vigilant and make it clear to legislators and others that nothing will be accepted but “excavation and total removal” of coal ash stored on the Duke Energy property of the former Weatherspoon generating plant in Lumberton.
That advice is offered by Christine Ellis, with the South Carolina-based Winyah Rivers Foundation, following last week’s announcement that the state Department of Environmental Quality has designated the ash pit at Weatherspoon as an “intermediate” risk to the environment and public health. The ranking means that excavation and removal of coal ash from the site must be completed no later than the end of 2024.
As required under a state law, the state DEQ had to submit risk rankings by May 18 for all of Duke Energy’s 33 coal ash pits in North Carolina.
Coal ash is the residue remaining after coal is burned to generate electricity. It contains elements that are hazardous to the health of humans and the environment, such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
While the Weatherspoon plant has been out of service since September 2011, the coal ash pits have remained on the property. The ash currently remains in unlined ponds adjacent to Jacobs Swamp and the Lumber River.
Ellis told The Robesonian that while it is good news that the the Weatherspoon site was designated as an “intermediate” risk, she said that a “high hazard” classification would have been more suitable.
“We are disappointed with this determination given that there are many risks identified that support a ‘high’ hazard classification that would have required excavation and removal by the end of 2019,” said Ellis, who has been working to educate the public concerning threats to human health and the environment resulting from toxic coal ash. “This would have resulted in the elimination of any threat to the Lumber River and its downstream communities a whole five years earlier.”
Ellis said that she is concerned that the state DEQ is asking for a change in state law that would allow it to reconsider its risk assessments in 18 months. DEQ said in a statement that its classifications are based on “current risk of each pond’s impact on public health and the environment” and that the risk of each pond could change “significantly” based on work that is planned or already under way.
Ellis said that even with dam repairs made at the Weatherspoon site, she does not think DEQ will downgrade the site’s hazard rating.
“Structural integrity is not the only reason Weatherspoon was given an intermediate rating,” Ellis said. “There are other factors involved including that the ash impoundment is located in the flood plain and there are questions about whether or not any coal ash has gotten into the cooling pond.
“But anything can happen in eight years. That’s why we need to remain vigilant and keep people engaged … . The eventual cleanup of the site will be a long-term benefit to the community, to the Lumber River, to Duke Energy, and to the DEQ. This is a win-win situation for everyone when this is all cleaned up. There will be no remaining threat to anyone.”
The Rev. Mac Legerton, director of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, said that the next step in protecting public health and the environment from coal ash is for overall “better coal ash management.” He said that while the Weatherspoon site will eventually be cleaned up, all that is really being accomplished is for the toxic ash to be removed from one location to another.
“All we are doing is taking our coal ash and placing it in lined pits in another community. I’m not happy about that,” said Legerton.
North Carolina House members on Wednesday moved to reinstate the Coal Ash Management Commission, which would oversee coal ash cleanup, despite the threat of a veto from Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory shut down the commission in January following a state Supreme Court ruling that took issue with how much control legislators had over the panel. McCrory said he would veto legislation to revive the committee because it was not necessary and would disrupt Duke Energy’s work so far, the AP reported. The bill, which is now headed to the Senate, would also direct Duke Energy to help people living near some coal ash pits find another drinking water supply.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.