New study cites increased sulphur dioxide emissions at Duke’s Asheville plant

COAL CUTTERS: The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment gave the go-ahead to a conditional use permit that will allow Duke Energy to begin construction on its natural gas facility. Duke says it plans to eliminate its Arden-based coal-fired operation by the end of 2019.

Beyond Coal and the Sierra Club released a study today, Feb. 19, indicating that Duke Energy’s Asheville plant may be exceeding federally regulated levels of sulphur dioxide, a toxin that aggravates asthma and causes other health problems. “Somewhere in the Asheville area, that [federal] standard is being exceeded about once every three to four days,” said Howard Gebhart of Air Resource Specialists Inc.

His company conducted the study, using information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Weather Service and Duke’s own data on emissions, the coal used in the plant and its pollution-control systems. “If more sulphur is coming in [via high-sulfur coal] and the [pollution-control] scrubbers aren’t performing, you get more SO2 going out,” said Dr. Ranajit “Ron” Sahu, environmental law consultant for the study.

The nonprofit groups have shared the study online and will be sharing it with the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency, in the hopes that the problem will be addressed, says Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club and Asheville Beyond Coal. In May, she noted, Duke’s permit expires and is up for renewal.

For more, including maps, go to Beyond Coal‘s website and see the report info at the Sierra Club website, which links to the reports. This story will be updated as we learn more details from the report.

Here’s the press release about the study:

ASHEVILLE, NC – A new report demonstrates that Duke Energy’s Asheville coal plant has been emitting harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution at levels considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency for the past several years. Areas impacted include parts of South Asheville, Fairview, and Leicester, as well as trails in the Bent Creek Forest.
An air modeling study by Air Resource Specialists[1] shows that concentrations of SO2 in the air near people’s homes downwind of the Asheville coal plant are up to 3.5 times higher than what EPA has determined to be safe. According to the study, the plant’s pollution has exceeded these minimum public health standards approximately one out of every three to four days since 2010.

A separate analysis[2] of operations at the plant points to the two causes of this increased pollution: Duke apparently has not been running its pollution protection technology fully and, at the same time, has switched to cheaper, dirtier, higher-sulfur coal. The most likely reason for these changes is to reduce the cost of running this plant, which is one of the utility’s most expensive to operate.

Air pollution controls, “scrubbers”, were installed at the plant in 2005 and 2006. The analysis released today suggests that when first installed, those safeguards were run at acceptable levels, but have been turned down in recent years.

“These new findings reveal dangers to families who live in and visit the impacted area and who breathe the air that is being polluted by Duke Energy’s coal plant,” said Kelly Martin, North Carolina Representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“Fortunately, there is an easy way for Duke to eliminate this health threat and restore clean air to Asheville: they can run the plant’s pollution control technology as it was designed to be operated and can return to using coal with lower sulfur content,” said Julie Mayfield, Co-Director of MountainTrue (formerly, the Western North Carolina Alliance). “We urge Duke Energy to take the steps necessary to stop their pollution and protect our families.”

Nearly 20,000 children and adults suffer from asthma in Buncombe County[3]. “It is beyond my moral imagination that Duke Energy would permit this public health hazard to endanger our community,” said Richard Fireman, M.D., retired Emergency Medicine Physician. “We know that air pollution from sulfur dioxide triggers asthma attacks and airway constriction. It exacerbates other respiratory problems including bronchitis and emphysema, requiring emergency medical treatment and hospital admissions. Sulfur dioxide can also form other toxic sulfur compounds that can aggravate existing heart disease, causing hospital admissions and unexpected, premature death.”

“While we’ve just learned about the extent and intensity of sulfur dioxide pollution in Asheville’s air, Duke’s coal plant has been a known source of pollution affecting our water and our climate for decades. It’s time for Duke to take responsibility for this pollution and protect the health of our communities, not just some of the time, but all the time,” Martin said.

Previously, watchdog groups have discovered dangerous pollution from the plant’s coal ash pits, including mercury, leaking into the French Broad River in violation of the Clean Water Act. The plant is also the largest source of carbon pollution in Western North Carolina, making it the leading contributor to climate disruption in the region.

[1] D. Howard Gebhart, Air Resource Specialists, Inc., Air Quality Dispersion Modeling 1-Hour Average Standard for Sulfur Dioxide: Duke Energy — Asheville Plant (Feb. 13, 2015)

[2] Ranajit Sahu, Analysis of Scrubber Operation: Duke Energy — Asheville Plant (Feb. 16, 2015)

[3] stateoftheair.org/2014/states/north-carolina/ – American Lung Association

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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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6 thoughts on “New study cites increased sulphur dioxide emissions at Duke’s Asheville plant

  1. larry

    Was it not sulphur that scientist wanted to put into space to stop global warming????? Look it up!

  2. patrick

    It is beyond my compression that Duke is such an irreponsible neighbor. It is time for the DENR and EPA to take action order Duke to be more responsible. If they have scrubber equipment installed, when was it inspected and by whom?

  3. greg lewis

    You need to get the facts straight for your stories. These “studies” were not done by the EPA, they were done by a group associated with the Sierra Club known for publishing numbers that are not correct or samples per EPA standards. They also used “modeling” and not real samples. EPA sampling shows sulfur dioxide emissions at the Lake Julian plant are down over 80% since 1980.

    • Andrew

      It doesn’t say the studies were “done by the EPA”– “His company conducted the study, using information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Weather Service and Duke’s own data on emissions, the coal used in the plant and its pollution-control systems.”
      Also, if the scrubbers were installed in 2005 and 2006, I’m not sure why would you be citing a trend beginning in 1980. I don’t think anyone can reasonably claim that (non-renewable) energy companies have ever been or have suddenly become responsible stewards of the environment and public health. I’d say this PRESS RELEASE (not story) is certainly worth publishing.

      • Jim

        LOL. Cronies and land developers are salivating for the closure of the plant to make way for construction. And low info left wing sheep won’t be able to afford to live there even though they’re fully behind it, LOL, the fools can’t grasp the idea that they’re manipulated and used by the rich to get richer.

    • Margaret Williams

      Thanks, Greg, for the observation. We reported, as Gebhart stated, that they used data from the EPA, Duke and Weather Service — not that any of those agencies or the company did the study. Emissions are indeed down — since the scrubbers were installed in 2005-2006, three years after the state passed the Clean Smokestacks Act. I’ve asked for more specific info about emissions and changes over time. Howard Gebhart of Air Resource Specialists Inc. says the computer-modeling program Aermod was used, if I recall his statement during the teleconference.

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