Waste once contained in coal-ash pits at a Duke Energy power plant in Wayne County spilled into the Neuse River to a larger extent than what the company or the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality previously reported, according to conservation organizations.
The extent of the spill is still unclear, but video and photos shot this week by the Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper at Sound Rivers show a sludge-like layer of waste about 1-inch thick floating on the river.
“Any failure on the part of DEQ to make Duke Energy clean it up will show once again that the administration under Gov. Pat McCrory does not hold Duke accountable,” said Donna Lisenby of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
The spill, from the H.F Lee power plant, is another remind er of the destructive flooding brought by Hurricane Matthew.
It’s also a reminder of the mishandling of waste that is produced by Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants. Duke Energy pleaded guilty last year to federal charges that it failed to properly handle coal ash or wastewater. It now faces $102 million in fines and restitution and is under five years’ probation.
Last week, Duke Energy failed to detect another spill at the power-plant site — one made up of wastewater coming from a cooling pond. Video from a news crew first showed that a dam for the pond had failed.
On Friday, Duke Energy, referring to a separate spill of coal ash, said that water samples did not show the “presence of measurable ash-related constituents in the Neuse River.” The next day, DEQ officials backed Duke Energy’s report, saying the amount of spilled coal ash could fit in the bed of a pickup.
What exactly do images show?
The Waterkeeper Alliance and Neuse Riverkeeper at Sound Rivers say that the 1-inch layer of waste they recorded on video and photographed is part of the coal-ash spill.
While Duke Energy confirmed that the newly photographed sludgelike substance came from its coal-ash waste dumps, neither Duke Energy nor the DEQ would describe the waste as coal ash.
Company spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the waste product is something known as a cenosphere.
“Cenospheres are microscopic, hollow beads that are a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. They are inert, lighter particles that clump together when wet and are made largely of alumina and silica,” Culbert said.
“These are a separate byproduct from coal ash,” she said.
Shea Tuberty, a biologist and environmental toxicologist at Appalachian State University, has studied the possible effects of cenospheres.
Risks depend on such things as whether they were buried deep in an ash pond for a long time or whether they were on the surface for a short period of time; whether they are broken or whole; whether they are coated with iron oxide gels.
Even if a cenosphere is not specifically classified as coal ash but a byproduct of coal ash, it can still be harmful because, according to Tuberty, toxic coal-ash substances such as arsenic can latch on to the iron oxide gels on a cenosphere.
DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher gave this description of the potential threat posed by cenospheres: That the substance is “not coal ash as falsely reported by a special interest group. The material, called cenospheres, are an inert and non-toxic.”
Tom Reeder, the DEQ’s assistant secretary, also weighed in.
“It’s unfortunate that a political group masquerading as environmentalists is deliberately trying to mislead the public. This type of fear-mongering is appalling in the wake of a storm that cost people their lives, their homes and their businesses,” Reeder said in a news release.
As it turns out, descriptions of coal ash provided by Duke Energy’s website and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency include references to cenospheres.
The EPA says coal ash is made up of such things as fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag, and says that “other types of byproducts are fluidized bed combustion ash, cenospheres and scrubber residues.”
In its description of coal ash, Duke Energy says on its website about coal ash: “We produce approximately 2 million tons of coal ash each year. The electrostatic precipitators at our plants capture about 99.8 percent of the fly ash, a fine, powdery material released from the boiler in the exhaust gas. Cenospheres are a form of fly ash that are tiny, inert, hollow balls of sandlike material.”
For Lisenby, there is no question that the cenospheres are part of the coal-ash spill and that the DEQ and Duke Energy tried to downplay the extent of the problem.
“There was far more than a ‘pickup truck load’ of coal ash washed into the Neuse River,” Lisenby said.
“Perhaps if DEQ spent as much time making Duke Energy clean up its polluting coal-ash waste as it did issuing press statements and editorials attacking their own scientists and Waterkeepers, our rivers and drinking water would be much cleaner,” she said.
Will Duke have to clean it up?
The Winston-Salem Journal asked Duke Energy whether it is permitted to discharge the cenospheres or its components — alumina and silica — into the river.
“Permits generally state that only trace amounts of floating solids or visible foam are allowed,” Culbert said. “The unprecedented flooding from Hurricane Matthew displaced a multitude of things across the state into waterways. We have reported this to state regulators, and we defer to the agency to determine next steps.”
The Journal asked the DEQ three times whether Duke Energy is permitted to discharge cenospheres but had not been given an explicit response by Wednesday afternoon.
In December 2008, a dam failure spilled a billion gallons of ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority, an event that brought national attention to the risks of storing coal-ash waste in giant basins.
The EPA made the TVA clean up the cenospheres.
Asked whether the DEQ would require Duke Energy to clean up the cenospheres, Rusher said a decision had not been made yet.
“The state environmental department will continue to inspect and evaluate any potential environmental impacts that may have been caused by historic flooding brought by Hurricane Matthew. As the floodwaters recede and staff are able to safely access these areas, any needed cleanup requirements will be ordered,” he said in an email.