WALNUT COVE, N.C. — On her way to school, Annie Brown climbed the steep hills that now stand anonymously below the surface of Belews Lake, a man-made body of water in Stokes County with 88 miles of shoreline.
Brown, 63, saw Duke Energy build the earthen dam in the early 1970s that impounds the water now capping those steep hills. The lake is used as a cooling reservoir for the coal-fired Belews Creek Steam Station. Now the company’s second-largest power plant in the Carolinas, it can generate up to 2,220 megawatts, enough to bring power to nearly 1.8 million average homes at full load.
The power plant has been a mixed blessing, in Brown’s view.
She watched her husband get a job at the power plant as a groundskeeper right when it opened; he worked there for 31 years before retiring. The plant now employs 160 Duke Energy workers — 220 people if you include supplemental contract employees, company officials say. But when Duke Energy started feeding coal to its massive turbines in the 1970s, Brown also saw soot in the mornings, ashy remnants puffed out of the smokestacks.
“It was on top of the cars. It was on the roofs,” Brown said.
The image has stuck with her all these years, so much so that when Brown moved into her house about 10 years ago, she wanted a black roof. She didn’t want a light-colored roof, even though the specter of falling ash had gone away, because light roofs used to turn dark from the ash.
Another thing that won’t go away is Brown’s physical ailment, the loss of full control of one of her hands.
Brown wonders whether the ailment, which she has had since the plant’s early days — and which doctors, she said, cannot figure out — are the unwanted effects of living near the power plant.
There is no way to tell whether coal-combustion waste from the power plant caused the ailment or whether she would have gotten the ailment had the plant never been built. She knows that. But, it seems to her, a lot of people in her area have gotten serious physical ailments at a young age, including her daughter and several neighbors.
“I can’t prove anything. But it’s alarming,” Brown said.
“I was a waitress, young, and I started losing control of my hand. I was working, and a cup and saucers just dropped out of my hand. I couldn’t control it. Doctors said it’s MS-type symptoms. Neurological. But they’ve never figured it out after all these years,” she said.
Improvements and violations
Folks such as Brown in Stokes County know the cautionary tale born in those early days — one that is commonly cited in energy-industry studies submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an example of why the federal government should start — yes, start — regulating waste produced by coal combustion at power plants.
The Belews Creek Steam Station dumped coal-combustion waste in its on-site, massive ash basin, a type of waste pond, which oozed into Belews Lake. Within years, 17 of the lake’s 20 fish species were wiped out. Selenium was the culprit.
Much has changed since the 1970s.
Cars no longer wake up covered in soot, and fish are biting. No site-specific fish advisories are in effect at Belews Lake. Duke Energy has invested about $1 billion since 2005 to improve its environmental impact, company officials say.
Duke installed a “selective catalytic reduction system” in 2005 to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide that the Belews power plant emits. It installed a “flue gas desulfurization system” in 2008 to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide. The plant is one of five in the U.S. that has advanced wastewater treatment systems that include a bioreactor, according to Erin Culbert, a company spokeswoman. The equipment significantly reduces air emissions — sulfur oxide by 90 percent and nitric oxide by more than 85 percent.
At the ash basin, a man-made earthen dike — about 2,000 feet long, 140 feet high, on a tributary to the Dan River known as Little Belews Creek — impounds about 350 feet of surface water. It holds about 4.1 million gallons of ash, according to environmental groups. And the power plant property also is home to two active, lined landfills and one unlined landfill that was closed a few years ago. A lining is a protective layer that helps keep waste from seeping into groundwater. The ash basin is not lined.
The environmental group, Appalachian Voices, refers to the plant’s two active, lined landfills as models of coal-combustion waste containment.
But some things about the Belews plant also raise concerns among environmental groups:
The dam is classified as being situated in a high hazard area. It is structurally sound, but its collapse would have a devastating impact on the surrounding community.
The ash basin was cited by the N.C. Department of Natural Resources in a recent lawsuit: “Seeps (have been) identified at Defendant’s Belews Creek Steam Station, which include engineered discharges from the toe-drains of its Ash Pond.”
Groundwater has been found in recent years to have levels of chromium, iron and manganese above the state’s maximum allowable limit, according to the lawsuit, which includes Duke Energy’s fleet of power plants statewide.
The permit for one of the ash basin’s outfalls does not require monitoring for several elements known to exist on coal ash waste, and it does not set limits on several of the elements for which it does require monitoring.
The Pine Hall landfill on site, now closed, is not lined.
The Belews power plant was “included as part of the lawsuits the state filed against Duke Energy Progress Inc. and Duke Energy Carolinas LLC for claims related to the discharge of wastewater from the utility’s North Carolina coal ash impoundments. All of the coal ash impoundments in North Carolina were included in these lawsuits,” said Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for DENR.
One of the permits at the ash basin requires monitoring and sets limits on several elements, including iron and manganese. Other elements regularly found in coal ash must be monitored but have no set limits — including arsenic, selenium, silver, mercury and nitrogen. And the permit does not require Duke Energy to monitor for other elements found in coal ash, including Radon, Radium and Uranium.
Asked why DENR permits set limits for some elements and not for others, and require no monitoring of other elements, Kritzer declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
Limits and more monitoring should be set, according to Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which, he said, forced the state to file the lawsuit by threatening to file one of its own.
“In fact, DENR is required by law (Clean Water Act) to use best professional judgment to require the best available technology to require treatment to eliminate or reduce these discharges. Instead, they don’t do that, and rely upon dilution to solve the problem. But … dilution does not work with heavy metals. They accumulate in the sediments and the water at the bottom of the waterways, where important biological processes happen, and erupt when the water and temperature conditions are right.
“DENR is not following the law when it fails to set limits for heavy metals in each of the permits for the coal plants,” Holleman said, also referring to a Kentucky Circuit Court decision last week that says limits should be set.
And, yes, DENR should require monitoring for other elements, he said. In recent years, South Carolina has required occasional testing for uranium in groundwater near coal ash basins and has found on at least one occasion an exceedence, he said.
Duke Energy does not let an element into the environment unchecked if it has no set limits, Culbert said. “That would be absurd.” Some elements have no limits because they are rarely detected during monitoring, she said.
Culbert also stressed that Duke Energy routinely assesses its groundwater, noting that several testing wells surround the ash basin. Iron and manganese, two of the elements found to be above the state’s allowable limit, are commonly found elements in North Carolina’s soil, she said. They may affect the taste and odor of water, but they’re not primary health risks.
Keeping the coal waste in the ash basin and the landfills — and out of the groundwater, rivers and lakes — is an engineering trick. Coal-fired power plants must be close to water because they need cooling reservoirs. At the same time, they must dispose of the coal combustion waste without letting it go back in the water or groundwater.
Enter landfills and ash basins.
They host potential contaminants such as arsenic. Other elements in coal waste include cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and selenium. Health risks posed by these elements include cancer and neurological damage.
In December 2008, a massive spill of coal combustion waste from a coal-fired power plant in Kingston, Tenn., brought national attention to ash basins. The Tennessee Valley Authority had a 40-acre ash basin, much smaller than the 350-acre ash basin at Belews. When the pond’s earthen dam collapsed in 2008, about 1 billion gallons of coal sludge spilled into the river valley, and about 300 acres of land got covered with it.
Such a disaster is very unlikely here, said Culbert, stressing that the dam that holds up the ash basin has no notices of violation in the past five years. EPA “inspections found the Kingston situation to be isolated, and no impoundments (ash basins) nationally were found to be ‘unsatisfactory,’ with structural integrity questions,” she said.
Finish the job
The TVA spill was the catalyst for federal regulation of coal combustion waste.
Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups took legal action requesting that the EPA follow a congressional mandate to come up with coal ash regulations. Those proposed regulations, started in 2010, have not been finished. Recently, a federal judge sided with Appalachian Voices, ordering the EPA to finish the job of setting coal ash regulations.
“EPA is proposing to regulate for the first time coal ash to address the risks from the disposal of the wastes generated by electric utilities and independent power producers,” the agency says on its website.
An EPA official could not be reached for comment on the status of the proposed regulations because of the government shutdown, which ended late last week.
The regulations could have far-reaching effects on Duke’s power plants, including Belews.
Among those effects, the Belews power plant may have to close its 350-foot ash basin, the same one that killed those fish many years ago.
“When EPA finalizes the coal ash regulations … Belews Creek station and hundreds of other coal plants may be required to close the wet impoundments (ash basins) and begin shifting ash disposal to dry landfills,” said Kara Dodson, a field organizer for Appalachian Voices.
The EPA’s proposed rules include a requirement that unlined ash basins be closed within five years, Culbert said. The disposal method then would be either in lined landfills or composite-lined surface impoundments, or ash basins, from that point.
“Duke Energy has already transitioned our larger coal plants in N.C. to dry fly ash handling with storage in lined landfills.
“Our position has been that an unlined basin that is performing well and complying with state standards should not automatically be required to close in that time period; rather, we prefer an option that allows state regulators the ability to make decisions on a site-specific basis,” Culbert said.
By Bertrand M. Gutierrez/Winston-Salem Journal