On Sept. 14, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to Charlotte to hold one of eight national hearings on coal ash -- the toxic stuff left behind after power plants burn coal. With more than 450,000 public comments to sort through, and a Congress bent on shackling the agency's authority, the EPA has yet to finalize its decision, leaving coal-ash controls to the states. That's not good enough for the activist organizations Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. According to a recent report from those groups, "State of Failure," most states' oversight of coal ash is "grossly inadequate."
That same report ranked North Carolina — home to more high-hazard coal-ash ponds than any other state — seventh on its "12 most dangerous states" list. Calling the ponds here "enormous," the report points to the 5,504,531 tons of coal ash produced in the state each year and the evidence of contaminated groundwater near at least 10 of the sites. Although most of the criticism of N.C.'s regulations don't pertain to the coal-ash ponds affecting Charlotte-area residents, environmentalists are concerned about them.
"We're polluting the primary resource that keeps civilization going," said Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, who has called the coal-ash problem in this area "enemy No. 1."
The two unlined ponds in the Charlotte region that the state deems "high-hazard" are located on the edge of Mountain Island Lake, the main drinking-water source for an estimated 1.5 million people. The ponds belong to Duke Energy's Riverbend plant, which began operations on Oct. 29, 1929. It was the last coal power plant to open before the Great Depression, and the last one the company would build until after World War II. Today, Riverbend is potentially the oldest operating coal plant in the country, yet it still helps power Charlotte, as it always has, although it doesn't run quite as often as it once did. According to Duke, the plant only fires up to meet the area's greatest demands — like when we collectively crank the AC or heat — but anyone driving by the red-brick building, located a dozen miles northwest of Uptown off Brookshire Boulevard, can see the yellowish, white or black smoke puffing from its stacks when the plant is in use. And those stacks puff a lot.
Because the plant is so old, its facilities and some of its practices are somewhat antiquated. For example, Riverbend doesn't have the same air-quality controls as newer plants, nor is the coal ash it creates reusable, since it's watered down into a slurry. (At more modern plants, the ash is stored dry, which allows coal companies to sell it to manufacturers that use it as a cheap ingredient in cement and asphalt.) The slurry is stored in the Riverbend plant's two ponds — one more than a half-century old, 41 acres and 80 feet deep, the other more than 25 years old, 28 acres and 70 feet deep.
At nearly 82 years old (the average lifespan of a coal plant is 30 to 40 years), Riverbend's coal-burning days are numbered. That's due, in part, to impending coal-ash regulations from the EPA — regulations the agency has toyed with for more than three decades while attempting to determine whether or not the stuff should be officially deemed hazardous waste. The agency got more serious about coal ash after the December 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority spill that captured attention when more than a billion gallons of it broke through an earthen dam and smothered some 300 acres, including two rivers.
The EPA called it "the biggest environmental disaster ever east of the Mississippi." If the same thing happened here, said Mecklenburg County's water quality program manager Rusty Rozzelle, "it would be the biggest catastrophe Charlotte's ever seen."
Experts agree that the TVA scenario is unlikely in Charlotte, where the concern centers on the hundreds of millions of gallons of ash-pond water that drain into our main drinking-water reservoir each year. The list of heavy metals and potential contaminants that coal ash contains reads like the periodic table: arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, radium, selenium, thorium, uranium, vanadium, zinc. And now, thanks to work by researchers at Duke University, we know it can also include strontium and a more toxic variety of arsenic called arsenic III.
The EPA's initial response to the TVA spill was promising. Teams of engineers and third-party consultants inspected ponds across the country, including the ones at Riverbend. Lisa Jackson, the agency's administrator, promised to enact a ruling on coal-ash waste disposal by the end of 2009. But that time came and went, and instead of a ruling, the agency announced two regulatory options and intentions to hold a series of hearings across several states, including the one in Charlotte last year. The 13-hour local hearing was packed for most of the day, with industry reps citing concerns about coal ash being stigmatized and citizens worried more about pollution and health risks.