The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently listed the dams of two Progress Energy coal-ash ponds in Buncombe County as “high hazard” structures, one of 44 nationwide and 14 in North Carolina (the other 12 in the state are operated by Duke Energy). But there’s no indication the two dams — each about 90 feet high and located just off Interstate 26 near Arden — present an immediate danger: In June, both the EPA and an engineering firm hired by Progress found no structural problems.
One of the structures holds back an active, unlined pond where wet coal-ash is stored; the other contains an inactive storage pond now capped with a filtration system that uses vegetation and other natural means to remove mercury and other contaminants from the coal-fired power plant’s waste water.
“We have seven ash ponds in the state, and only two are classified ‘high hazard,’” says Progress spokesperson Scott Sutton. The designation is given to any dam that poses the possibility of loss of human life and/or significant damage in densely populated areas, particularly near such structures as major highways and bridges, he explains.
The Arden dams lie adjacent to I-26 and about 300 yards from the French Broad River, and they’re near two major bridges at Highway 280 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, says Jerry VeHaun, Buncombe County emergency services director. The Progress dams are “not on [the high-hazard list] because of what’s in [them], but because of where they are,” he says. A number of other Buncombe dams are also considered high hazards by state and federal officials, VeHaun points out: The ones at the North Fork Reservoir and Bee Tree Lake come to mind, he adds. There are a number of homes below both those dams, which hold much of Buncombe’s water supply.
The June 29 EPA press release states, “A high hazard potential rating is not related to the stability of those impoundments but to the potential for harm should the impoundment fail.” The release notes the increased attention on coal-ash storage ponds, due to the Dec. 28, 2008, spill of coal ash through a failed dam near Kingston, Tenn. (For the full EPA report, click here. For the press release, click here.)
Although there’s no direct oversight by the EPA on such dams, they are regularly inspected by state officials and by the utilities. After the 2008 Kingston spill, Progress “moved up the schedule [because] everyone stood up and took notice. We wanted to verify that our dams were sound,” says Sutton.
But environmental groups counter that more oversight and action is needed: “As evidenced in Tennessee, these coal waste sites pose an immediate safety concern in addition to long-term concern over pervasive water quality and soil contamination,” says Chandra Taylor, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. She points out that current federal and state regulations don’t require coal-ash ponds to be lined, as landfills are required to be.
“Concern over the proximity of these sites to population centers both immediate and downstream should spur immediate action among community leaders now. It’s unacceptable that industrial waste sites are less regulated than household garbage,” says Taylor.
— Margaret Williams