Coal Ash Clean Up in North Carolina


To: Governor Patrick McCrory
From: Kathleen Merlini
Date: February 2015
Subject: A New Coal Ash Management Bill

The current legislation of the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 is not comprehensive or strong enough to prevent future coal ash spills. The bill must be amended or replaced before more coal ash spills devastate other North Carolina river ecosystems or communities. The legislation that was passed in 2014 does not require Duke Energy to clean up or properly evaluate enough of the storage facilities across the state, nor does it provide a clear framework on how to phase out wet storage and replace it with new, dry methods. I propose that a new bill is written that has more strict and clear guidelines for coal ash management, is consistent with EPA guidelines, and incentivizes the phasing out of coal energy.

Problem Analysis and Background

Approximately 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed into the Dan River in the latest spill, along with 24 million gallons of wastewater and 140,000 tons of toxic waste sediment. If the bill is not strengthened or replaced, it is likely that another spill will occur, which would inflict devastating consequences.

Ecological Impacts:
• Coal ash contains toxic levels of heavy metals, most notably, arsenic, mercury, chromium, and lead.
• Groundwater at all coal ash basins is contaminated.
• Ingestion of heavy chemicals by wildlife and plant either kills them, or leads to bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals, which travels through the food chain and affects other organisms and ecosystems.
• Scientist state the impacts of coal ash spills remain in rivers for decades.

Community Impacts:

  • Toxic and heavy chemical compounds pollute drinking water for nearby and downstream communities.
  • Huge economic costs are placed on consumers and taxpayers to clean up spills.
  • Damage to surrounding farmland, neighborhoods, and homes.
  • Adverse health effects including brain and nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues, respiratory issues, various cancers, and death


Coal Ash in North Carolina:
• 14 plants in North Carolina that produce and process coal ash, 7 of these are retired.
• Over 33 coal ash ponds are in need of clean up and removal.
• Many coal ash plants, storage facilities, or basin have been deemed a “high priority” or “high hazard” by the EPA, meaning loss of life and property are at risk.
o There are at least 10 more communities that likely should be labeled “high priority,” but are not.

Previous and Current Action

Coal Ash Management Act of 2014: This legislation requires the cleaning up of 4 “high hazard” sites by December 31st, 2019. It also allows for capping of “low risk” coal ash basins; however, these can still contaminate groundwater. There are differences between the North Carolina state bill standards and the EPA’s standards for coal ash management safety that contribute to the vagueness and confusion about the bill’s expectations from Duke Energy. It also allows Duke Energy to place some of the cleanup costs on customers, which CEO, Lynn Good, has stated Duke plans on doing. Most notably, bill mandates the phasing out of wet ash handling, or the process of storing ash in ponds next to waterways, which is a process that has been proved to consistently contaminate the groundwater beneath and surrounding these storage basins.
Why Further Action is Necessary:
• A number of sites that are not listed as high priority are, in fact, a high hazard and in need of maintenance, cleanup, or removal before a spill occurs.
• The Coal Ash Management Act does not match the EPA’s standards even though these offer the bare minimum protection.
• The bill charges consumers for cleanup costs.


I propose drafting a new bill to address coal ash that incorporates the following changes:
• Removal of all wet coal ash from ponds or basin storage
o Ensures that there will be no discrepancy or subjectivity when deciding which sites will be cleaned up.
o Duke will not be able to lower costs by underestimating the risk factors of sites or ignoring them altogether by claiming they are “low risk” or a non-hazard.
• Since Duke Energy will be transferring the majority of costs onto customers, customers who opt to switch to solar should pay a discounted cleanup fee.
o Those who choose to stay with coal-powered electricity would be paying the greater burden of costs, and would be incentivized to switch to solar energy.
o This market-based incentive will contribute to phasing out coal energy altogether, thus eliminating the risk of coal ash spills entirely.
• A thorough evaluation and labeling of each coal plant and storage site, using guidelines that are in accordance with the EPA’s standards on coal ash management safety.
o Ensures that all truly “high priority” and “high hazard” sites are addressed and none are underestimated.
o Clarifies confusions and differences between EPA and state law that make it more difficult to execute new policies.

SWOT Analysis
Strengths: This zero-tolerance, standardized, and market-based approach will take control away from Duke Energy and ensure that not only will the coal ash be removed and maintained, but coal itself will be phased out. This will be the most positive outcome for the environment as a whole.
Weaknesses: Requiring the cleanup of all wet coal ash sites will be very costly to both Duke Energy and consumers, and will take a considerable amount of time. The process will entail consistent monitoring to ensure that there is proper cleanup, which will be costly and tedious as well. However, this is an upfront cost that will eventually pay for itself, if doing this ensures there will be no more multi-million dollar spills in the future.
Opportunities: This will spark innovation from businesses and engineers to develop more efficient and effective solar technology, because ideally, more businesses and consumers will be turning to this clean energy resource.
Threats: If the majority of customers do choose to switch to solar to enjoy discounted cleanup fees and extra income through net metering, Duke could lose its prominence in the coal industry. However, the company would instead be establishing itself as a leader in the solar energy field.

By establishing a mandate across the board that all wet coal ash must be removed, the bill would be most effective in keeping groundwater and rivers unpolluted and the ecosystems thriving. More thorough evaluation and maintenance of facilities would prevent future spills. Finally, presenting consumers with economic incentives to switch to solar power would give them more autonomy over their energy consumption and ecological footprint, while potentially phasing out the unsustainable coal industry and eliminating the need for coal ash management legislation altogether.
“Dan River Response.” (February 5, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem.” (February 10, 2015).
2014. “NC Sierra Club Response to Final Passage of S 729, Coal Ash Management Act” August 20. (February 5, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem” (February 10, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem” (February 10, 2015).
2015. “Danger still looms over the Dan River” Appalachian Voices. February 9. (February 10, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem” (February 10, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem” (February 10, 2015).
“The Coal Ash Problem” (February 10, 2015).
“Ash Management.” (February 5, 2015)
Mark Binker. 2014. “Senate coal ash plan tightens requirement for cleanup at four sites” NCCapitol. (February 5, 2015).
2015. “Danger still looms over the Dan River” Appalachian Voices. February 9. (February 10, 2015).
2015. “Danger still looms over the Dan River” Appalachian Voices. February 9. (February 10, 2015).
Mark Binker. 2014. “Senate coal ash plan tightens requirement for cleanup at four sites” NCCapitol. (February 5, 2015).
Bruce Henderson. 2014. “Duke CEO: Customers should pay ash pond costs” March 7. (April 2, 2015)
2014. “NC Sierra Club Response to Final Passage of S 729, Coal Ash Management Act” August 20. (February 5, 2015).

About Kacey Merlini

I am a sophomore Environmental Social Science major at Davidson College particularly focusing on the political, economic, and social impacts of renewable energy systems and food policy. I also play lacrosse at Davidson, and in my free time I enjoy spending time outdoors and photography.

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