Details scant on plan to put coal ash at Charlotte Douglas

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

There were more questions than answers Friday as city officials described a proposal to move millions of tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant on Mountain Island Lake to a new landfill at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Charlotte City Council will hear more details about the proposal March 24, when Duke and an environmental group plan to present pros and cons of the idea.

Duke stores 2.7 million tons of toxic coal ash in two unlined pits at the retired Riverbend Steam Station, north of Charlotte. The utility has said it will close its existing ash ponds, a consequence of a Feb. 2 spill on the Dan River that dumped thousands of gallons of toxic sludge.

Environmental advocates said Duke’s proposal could be a better solution for the ash than where it sits now, next to the lake that provides drinking water for Charlotte.

But they still see potential problems, such as the airport’s proximity to the Catawba River, streams that drain to Lake Wylie and groundwater sources for residents, and the sheer number of unanswered questions about the plan.

“A lot depends on the execution,” said Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. His group will also present to City Council.

“Is it perfect? Is it what I’d like to see and do in the future? Maybe not, but it is important to get this ash off the drinking water of 830,000 people.”

A Duke spokesman and city officials weren’t able to say Friday where on the airport’s 6,000 acres the ash would go, or for which construction projects it would provide fill material. It also wasn’t clear whether Duke would pay Charlotte to store the ash there, or when the project might begin.

“We received the letter yesterday,” said Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi. “We can only do so much in 24 hours. There are more questions now than anything else.”

Asked whether he knows enough to tell the community that burying coal ash at the airport would be safe for the water supply, Charlotte sustainability program manager Rob Phocas said, “That’s what the due diligence period is about.”

City officials said Friday that Duke first approached them last summer with the idea of using coal ash from Riverbend as construction material at the airport. Charlotte Douglas officials went to Asheville to tour a similar project at that city’s airport, where the utility has moved millions of tons of coal ash to fill and grade land there.

The discussions didn’t lead anywhere at the time.

“After that, it really went quiet,” Phocas said. “We listened to what they had to say, had conversations, and they didn’t reach out to us anymore after that. We weren’t pushing for it.”

But Thursday, with a Saturday deadline looming for Duke to present its plans for dealing with the coal ash, Duke revived the plan and sent Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon and City Council a letter laying out the basics of its proposal.

Duke wants to work with Charah, a Kentucky-based company, to excavate the ash from Riverbend and transport it to Charlotte Douglas. There, the ash would be buried and covered with a waterproof liner on all sides, then buried under several feet of dirt.

“It would be totally encased and covered with soil,” said Duke spokesman David Scanzoni. He declined to say whether the Charlotte-based utility is considering other sites for storing the ash.

“I don’t think we’re their only option,” said Phocas. “I think we’re one of their top options.”

The resulting land would be flat and ready for construction. The airport has a number of projects planned, such as a fourth parallel runway, that would require major grading.

The airport’s savings from having Duke do that work could be significant. Deputy Interim Aviation Director Jack Christine said Charlotte Douglas spent $70 million to move 9 million cubic yards worth of dirt and grade the land for its third parallel runway, which opened in 2010.

Charah is carrying out a similar-sized project at Asheville Regional Airport, which began in 2007. The company doesn’t expect to finish moving and burying the coal ash there until mid-2015.

Airport spokeswoman Tina Kinsey said the utility doesn’t pay Asheville Regional to put coal ash there. “The benefit to the airport is the addition of usable land on the airport property,” she said. So far, the grading and filling has saved the airport $12 million.

Charah installed wells to monitor groundwater, Kinsey said. Duke retains ownership of the coal ash buried on the airport’s land, and will be responsible for required testing in the future.

The companies said several other airports, including George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, have used coal ash as a building material.

Gaskins said he doesn’t know of any problems that have emerged from the project at Asheville’s airport. Although he’s still looking for details on Charlotte’s project – such as how close the ash would be to streams and the thickness of liners – Gaskins said almost any ash storage option is preferable to the current situation next to Charlotte’s main reservoir.

“The biggest incremental reduction in the threat is going to be just getting it out of an unlined pond on the banks of drinking water,” he said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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