The Green Scene

A December 2008 coal-ash spill in Tennessee appears to have spurred North Carolina legislators to increase oversight of 12 dams that hold back the toxic material — two of them in Buncombe County. Gov. Bev Perdue signed Senate Bill 1004 into law July 31. The legislation requires Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff to inspect the dams at least every two years instead of every five, as private contractors have previously done.

Those dam power plants: New state regulations will give coal-ash dams a closer look while encouraging utilities to replace older coal-fired plants with natural gas units. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The Kingston, Tenn., spill was the largest of its kind in U.S. history: 5.4 million cubic yards, enough to flood 3,000 acres 1 foot deep, The New York Times reported last year. Coal ash, a largely unregulated waste product of coal-fired power plants, contains toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The failed impoundment (at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant west of Knoxville) wasn't lined, as even municipal landfills must be. And when the earthen dam collapsed after heavy rains and freezing weather, the deluge destroyed three homes (one was swept off its foundation), heavily damaged about a dozen others and poured millions of gallons of contaminated sludge into the Emory River.

The cleanup cost and environmental damage are still being assessed, and in June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a list of 44 "high-hazard" coal-ash-pond dams in the nation. (Prior to the Dec. 22 spill, the EPA didn't identify these dams, citing national security concerns. There are about 400 coal-ash impoundments nationwide.)

North Carolina — which derives about half its electricity from coal-fired plants — has more high-hazard coal-ash impoundments than any other state. Both Buncombe dams are at Progress Energy's Skyland plant. About 90 feet high, they loom over Interstate 26 beside the French Broad River. Neither dam has any reported structural problems, state officials have said, explaining that the high-hazard designation isn't limited to coal-ash facilities and does not describe the dam's condition: It can apply to any dam that, if it failed, would endanger human life, disrupt major transportation routes and/or public utilities, harm water supplies or cause significant property damage.

The dams at the North Fork and Bee Tree drinking-water reservoirs are high-hazard structures, noted Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun.

The new state legislation removes an exemption that kept coal-ash dams from falling under the purview of North Carolina's Dam Safety Law (which, in addition to requiring increased inspections, allows DENR to impose criminal and civil penalties in the event of violations. In a July 31 press release, Gov. Perdue stated, "We must provide greater oversight and more frequent inspections."

According to Progress Energy spokesperson Scott Sutton, the company conducts monthly in-house dam inspections, supplemented by annual independent ones. "This bill provides for an extra set of eyes to verify that our dams are indeed structurally sound," he said.

The new law, noted Sutton, also includes provisions that could help both Progress Energy and Duke Energy finance the construction or purchase of large-scale, zero-emission power facilities fueled by solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, ocean-current or wave energy.

Another provision streamlines the permitting process for bringing natural-gas-powered plants online. "Given the conversation nationally on carbon offsetting, we want to be able to close coal-fired units and build natural-gas units," said Sutton, explaining that the latter emit less nitrogen, sulfur oxides, mercury and CO2 than coal-fired plants. Progress Energy, he said, has spent about $1.4 billion installing scrubbers to reduce these emissions at the Skyland facility and other coal-fired plants. But the company might not have enough time to upgrade some older units in the eastern part of the state by 2013 (the deadline set by North Carolina's Clean Smokestacks Act), said Sutton. The new law, he noted, specifies that utilities must shut down the coal-fired plant to qualify for the fast-track permitting.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 900 of the next 1,000 power plants in the nation will be fueled by natural gas. The nation has a substantial supply of the fossil fuel, most of it located in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. But relatively new, controversial technologies allow it to be harvested from coal and shale beds as well, including some in southwest Virginia, and environmentalists have raised concerns about ground-water contamination.

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com or call 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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