DAVIDSON – Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins told the Davidson town board that if a coal ash spill occurred along the Catawba River, there could be not only environmental impacts, but also economic ones. Perkins was invited to speak at the July 8 meeting as part of the board’s continued show of support for encouraging clean water and coal ash safety standards.

“It’s a sobering subject and it is sad to me that citizens are so upset over an issue like funding a highway or other issues where there is a lot of passion, but we can’t get our hands around this issue,” Mayor John Woods said. “A lot of people don’t believe it can happen to us, but it can happen.”

In May, commissioners, led by Woods, passed a resolution requesting legislative action on coal ash in North Carolina, following the February 2014 coal ash spill from Duke Energy’s Dan River coal power plant. Among the items, the resolution encouraged the N.C. General Assembly to pass legislation prohibiting additional waste being put into existing coal ash ponds, requiring all coal ash in the state be moved to safe, dry lined storage away from water resources with a method to collect leached materials and monitor groundwater. It also requested requiring Duke Energy to pay for the cost of cleanup at Dan River and all other coal ash ponds in the state without passing off the cost to ratepayers. July 8, the board also asked that encouraging better water quality be considered for the N.C. League of Municipalities Municipal Advocacy Goals.

Those are measures Duke Energy has already committed to, said Duke Energy Communications Manager Erin Culbert.

“The company accepted responsibility for the Dan River spill very quickly after the incident, and we are committed that that cost will not go to our customers,” said Culbert, who did not attend the meeting.

The N.C. General Assembly is working on the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, which has several provisions, including potentially closing the state’s 33 coal ash ponds by 2029. Deemed priority are plants at Riverbend in Gaston County off Mountain Island Lake, Dan River, Sutton and Asheville.

“We don’t know how they came up with the priorities,” Culbert said of Riverbend being on the list. “Back in March, we made the commitment to excavate the ash in Riverbend and put it in a lined structure. We are still looking to find the right destination.”

The Riverbend plant has been retired and is in the process of being decommissioned.

Perkins cited three coal sites directly on the Catawba, including Riverbend, Marshall Steam Station off Lake Norman and Allen Steam Station off Lake Wylie. He thinks the Marshall Steam Station off Lake Norman, should be added to the high priority list.

 “Our message is simple, we are not trying to go after and make a display to shut down power plants,” Perkins said. “We want them moved away from water.”

He said in comparison to a potential disaster off the Catawba River, the Dan River spill was the best-case scenario because it’s the smallest site and that it only has wet ash as compared to other sites that also stores dry ash. 

A spill on the Catawba could potentially spoil the water supply, have environmental effects and would affect lakefront properties accounting for millions of dollars in property tax in all of the counties surrounding the lake, he said.

“From historical experience, we were fortunate the drinking water was not compromised and there were no effects,” Culbert said of Dan River. She understands the concern regarding the drinking water supply, but stressed the company is taking action to ensure the health and safety of the water and all of those who use it, also noting that the Marshall Plant and the Dan River spill aren’t parallel scenarios.

“Dan River was a storm pipe that failed, not a dam and there are no storm water pipes from the Marshall plant,” Culbert said, adding dams are highly regulated and consistently monitored.  She said since 2007, the company has invested millions of dollars to transition a larger percentage of the ash from the Marshall plant into dry fly ash with storage in a lined landfill.

During his presentation, Perkins said spills aren’t the only threat to the area, including depletion of the water supply and harmful elements going into the water.

“Lake Norman has good water quality and has over the decades we have operated,” Culbert said. “We know it’s thriving for residents, recreation and aquatic opportunities and there is no reason it should be considered threatened.”