Coal ash: Not in Cliffside

Feb. 23, 2014 @ 06:01 AM

While state and federal regulators continue wrestling with a coal ash spill into the Dan River in the northern part of the state, the question about whether it can happen in Rutherford County has been raised.

On Feb. 2, Duke Energy officials discovered nearly 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water was released into the Dan River from its Eden coal power facility.

Now, state lawmakers and federal regulators have swept in to investigate.

But, Duke officials have maintained an incident similar to the one at the Dan River is not possible at its facility in Cliffside.

"Cliffside is one of the newest facilities and it has dry fly ash and dry bottom ash," said Erin Culbert, spokeswoman for Duke Energy. "Both types of ash are being handled in a lined landfill so we don't send that ash to a wet basin."

She said the newer No. 6 unit — which is the most used of the two units — dispenses the dry ash and does not require a wet basin for recovery. The older, No. 5 unit does use a wet basin but, because No. 6 is the more efficient unit, No. 5 is not widely used.

According to Culbert, the incident at the Dan River occurred when a storm water pipe broke allowing coal ash to be spilled into the river, causing the third-largest coal ash spill in the nation's history.

Last week, the legislative Environmental Review Committee (ERC) opened hearings into the incident, questioning both Duke officials and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, co-chairs the ERC and said the main issue is the breakdown in communication.

According to documents provided to the committee, Duke officials noticed the problem in the coal ash pond on Feb. 2 between 2-4 p.m. and attempted to call the Division of Wildlife Resources regional office but no one answered and no message was left. Additionally, Duke attempted to call the Division of Emergency Management via the environmental emergency hotline but the call was not relayed to DENR.

The documentation concluded it was not until 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3 before DENR issued a press release regarding the spill.

"The breakdown was on the DENR side with the communication and things like that," Hager said. "I think those are easy things to fix."

Hager, a former Duke Energy engineer for 17 years, agreed with Culbert that a situation similar to the Dan River is not as likely in Cliffside.

"You have a small amount of ash and a pond near the Broad River," Hager, who was in charge of the Cliffside plant for seven years, said. "If you have a berm failure, you could have that situation but it is highly unlikely in Cliffside, especially with all the regulations in place."

He said the next step for the state is to conduct a risk assessment of all power plants in the state to determine if anything like the Dan River spill could happen again and where.

"We have to assess what are risk areas and where they are," Hager said. "It has to be done on the state level and we may come up with one in each county.

"We have to decide what those factors are and then we have to mitigate those risks. We have to know what's out there and we have to put a plan in place to reduce the risk. From there, we have to figure out where the funds will come from."

Additionally, a measure is being crafted by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, to force Duke to remove coal ash dumps like the one located at the Dan River.

Hager responded to the call for legislation by saying there needs to be a more permanent solution to the issue.

"We can't knee-jerk because when we do that, it is a band-aid and not a permanent solution," Hager said. "You can end up fixing an issue that's not a problem. I want to take a step back and look at everything."

While Hager and Duke Energy contend a spill like the one at the Dan River is not likely in Cliffside, Hager said it is time to look at all risk factors across the state. He said the ERC will confer with legislative staff to determine the next course of action. Hager said being proactive rather than reactive is the best response and there is the possibility a legislative subcommittee could be formed to look at coal ash in the state.

"We have turned a blind eye to things like this in the past," Hager said. "We are going to start doing things that previous administrations have refused to do and that is part of the job."