North Carolina floods thrust Trump coal deregulation back into spotlight

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Duke Energy coal-fired power plant is seen from the Dan River in Eden, N.C., in 2014. A breach there that year sent up to 82,000 tons of wet coal ash into waterway. (Reuters/Chris Keane)

For nearly a half century, Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton power plant in North Carolina has stored a toxic substance called coal ash in a nearby basin. The byproduct left behind when coal is burned for energy is prone to leach into waterways — and laced with arsenic, lead and mercury.

After Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas, floodwaters inundated the 47-year-old basin and sent waters polluted with that waste into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.  The storm also breached the wall of a separate coal ash landfill nearby.

The flooding in North Carolina has also swept back into the spotlight efforts by the Trump administration to relax rules on the way that very substance is stored.

In the first major rule change under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, the Environmental Protection Agency in July finalized a new rule empowering states to certify whether coal facilities meet standards for coal ash disposal sites and to suspend groundwater monitoring in certain cases.

A key component of President Trump’s efforts to revive the nation’s declining coal industry involves giving states and businesses more flexibility around the costly task of keeping the coal ash away from waterways.

The new rule undid one under President Barack Obama in 2015 that increased inspections and monitoring and required liners in new waste pits to prevent leaks into drinking water supplies.

While the rule change would likely have not had an effect on Duke Energy’s old coal ash pond, it may have the effect of extending the lifespan of many storage basins. The existence of such basins, in turn, increases the risk of such leaks.

And as The Post’s Brady Dennis, Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin reported Friday, a leak is what happened:

The company said in a news release Friday that workers were moving “large stones and other materials” to help plug gaping holes in the dams and on Saturday added it was bringing additional construction materials from across the state. Sheehan said Duke has deployed booms with curtains below them to try to contain some of the leaking material. …

Fears about the situation at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton power plant near Wilmington have been growing since before Florence made landfall. Earlier in the week, rainfall from the storm punched holes in the wall of a separate coal ash landfill also near the former coal plant, which sits on the banks of man-made Sutton Lake and near the Cape Fear River, failed in several places. A special black membrane installed to contain the waste was torn open in at least two spots.

Duke Energy estimated last weekend that the storm had washed away more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal waste — enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks. The environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance said in a statement Saturday that breaches at the landfill “swallowed a bulldozer and a tractor.”

Over the weekend, Duke Energy said according to its own lab testing, coal ash has not yet contaminated Cape Fear River downstream, Raleigh’s News and Observer reports. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality still needs to complete its own tests.

Like finding a permanent home for radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, safely storing coal ash is a logistical headache for regulators in both Democratic and Republican administrations. For one federal appeals court, even Obama-era rules to contain coal ash were insufficient. In August, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of environmental groups to find that the 2015 rule was not stringent enough.

The previous administration’s efforts came after another breach in 2014 — this one again in North Carolina, again involving Duke Energy — sent up to up to 39,000 tons of wet coal ash into the Dan River there , according to official EPA estimates.


Workers install a solar power system on the roof of Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C., in 2015. (NC WARN via AP)

— North Carolina’s solar farms still struggling after storm: The state’s solar generation “took a beating from Hurricane Florence and many of the power plants remain out of service, a week after the storm slammed into the second-biggest U.S. market,” Bloomberg News reports. “About one-third of the 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity” connected to Duke Energy’s system went down initially.

The main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station northeast of Grand Canyon National Park as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

— Sale of coal plant Trump administration trying to save falls through:Two potential buyers of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, Avenue Capital and Middle River Power, said they were no longer interested in purchasing the coal-fired power plant struggling to compete with cheap natural gas, the Associated Press reports. For months, the Interior Department along with Republicans in Congress tried to keep open the facility, which is the largest coal plant in the West. A department spokeswoman told the Washington Examiner those efforts would continue.

— Nation’s only new nuclear power plant under construction is on the rocks, too: The two primary municipal co-owners of the Vogtle power plant in Georgia “are scheduled to vote Monday whether to move forward with construction” on new reactors, Bloomberg News reports. The decision comes after Southern Co.’s Georgia Power “disclosed in August that costs had increased by $2.3 billion.” Like with the decline in coal-fired generation, a failure to build new nuclear power generation would be a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to revive the nation’s fleet of nuclear plants.