coal ash disposal

Coal Ash Wednesday: SELC statement on HB 630

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Kneeling at the altar of Duke Energy:

The following is a statement by Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center regarding the latest Duke Energy Bailout Bill, HB 630, that came out of closed doors today and is moving quickly through the North Carolina legislature:

“Following closed door meetings, the North Carolina Senate today moved to change state law to delay and provide Duke Energy loopholes to avoid coal ash cleanups. This coal ash bill is damning proof that the families and communities of North Carolina can’t rely on state politicians to protect their drinking water supplies from Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution."

Per Kirk Ross, the total time given to discuss this bill in both committee and on the floor of the Senate was less than half an hour, for some 33 pages. Which I find ironic as hell considering how often Duke Energy whines about "needing more time" to assess the situation. When they need more time, they get it. When our duly elected representatives need more time to study 33 pages of legislation, that time is simply not available. It's a pretty clear message of who owns the House and Senate. The rest of the statement:

Coal Ash Wednesday: Real environmental justice, or just another delaying tactic?

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We love the Federal government, we hate the Federal government, we love the Federal government:

At a public hearing earlier this year about the Dan River plans, several African-American residents argued against the proposal, saying it placed an unfair burden on the overall community. At the hearing, Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder pledged that the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory would complete an “environmental justice review of each Duke Energy coal ash landfill application” and seek approval from both EPA’s office of civil rights and the federal civil rights commission.

“The McCrory administration will go beyond federal and state requirements to protect minority communities from negative impacts when evaluating Duke Energy’s applications to store coal ash in a new landfill,” Reeder said at the time.

I will freely admit, I often try to ascribe nefarious motives when McCrory administration officials wax altruistic. Can't help it. When taken in context with other statements and behaviors, the odds they're genuinely concerned seem extremely low. Also, I just spent over an hour scouring DEQ's website searching for references to "environmental justice" and trying to track down the Division/department/agent(s) responsible for doing these reviews. Might as well have been looking for a four-leaf clover. I do welcome Federal oversight on this issue, because there are some serious questions about the appropriateness of this evaluation:

Coal Ash Wednesday: To Commission or not to Commission

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Another battle between McCrory and the Legislature seems imminent:

Senate Bill 71 gives the governor the five of the seven appointments to the Coal Ash Management Commission and creates new quorum rules to ensure that legislative members can't work without cooperating with the governor's appointees. "The governor's appointments will always be in charge," McGrady said.

But the bill also requires the lawmakers to confirm gubernatorial appointments and limits the reasons for which members of the commission can be removed. "Let's don't relive history here," Stephens told Rules Committee members, saying that the bill would not give McCrory adequate control of the commission. "My message to you is that all three of those commissions are unconstitutional and will be challenged."

It's plain to anybody with half a brain the Executive Branch (including DEQ) is riddled with conflicts of interest associated with Duke Energy, and needs to be under some form of oversight. That being said, I'm not sure the Legislature or the NCUC is any better. I fear Duke Energy may have an entire stable full of stalking horses of different government breeds, and putting faith in any one of them is naive at best. But Chuck McGrady's work with the Sierra Club was exemplary, and I do believe he is a genuine environmentalist, regardless of his other conservative traits. If he's going to be directly involved in the (new) Commission's creation and operation, go ahead and bring it.

Duke Energy will request rate hikes for coal ash disposal

Because every step they take is a money-making opportunity:

"But we will do everything we can to keep cost impacts as manageable as possible in any potential cost recovery filing that we might make in the future," Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email.

The company said excavating and reburying the coal ash in lined landfills could cost as much as $10 billion. That's more than Duke Energy spent to scrap a quarter of its coal-burning power capacity and open 10 new natural gas and coal plants in North Carolina, Florida and Indiana since 2009, the company said.

And now comes the economic coercion: If you force us to do what we should have done in the first place, bury this toxic mess in lined pits, we will make you pay for it yourselves. Besides, we have better things to do with our profits than fix our own mistakes with it:

Duke Energy-funded "advisory board" recommends they not spend billions relocating coal ash

How can you afford advisory boards if you spend all that money?

An advisory board created by Duke Energy says all of the company’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina can safely be capped in place.

When asked by the Charlotte Business Journal about possible criticism that the Advisory Board is “bought and paid for” by Duke Energy, Daniels said: “All these reports have been submitted, signed and sealed by professional engineers and scientists… They are professionals, and that matters more than who they are working for.”

The first thing that popped into my head reading that declaration of professionalism was the Bush quote "Tribal sovereignty means that; it's sovereign. I mean, you're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity." Just because you're a professional it doesn't mean you're not prone to bias or withholding information that could be damaging to your clients. Lawyers are professionals too, and "who they are working for" is a consideration that eclipses all others, including the truth.

Coal Ash Wednesday: "Beneficial" to whom?

It's not just an adjective, it's a license to pollute:

Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter is holding a hearing this week in Raleigh on a challenge to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to allow a “beneficial use” permit for the ash to be buried at the Brickhaven and Colon mines as part of what the state calls a reclamation project.

The opposing groups contend the burial is really nothing more than a landfill, not a reclamation project. As a landfill, it would be subject to more stringent environmental controls than as a beneficial use project.

Companies like Charah who deal in CCRs (Coal Combustion Residuals) invested a lot of time, effort, and money crafting the language used in their business. They fought (successfully) to keep coal ash from being classified as a "hazardous" waste, even though it contains both heavy metals and radioactive elements, as well as a smorgasbord of other toxins. And now their clever use of the word "beneficial" is allowing them to leapfrog over a second category. It's not a hazardous landfill, and it's not even a landfill, it's a reclamation project. The fact that DEQ has bought into this purely subjective classification is just one more nail in its integrity coffin.

Erratic behavior behind DEQ's feud with EPA

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Necessary changes or intentionally confusing?

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality says it has tried to develop a wastewater permit for the closed Riverbend Steam Station, a first of its kind involving removal of coal ash, based on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But it complains that the EPA has contradicted itself on provisions and dithered about approving the state’s plans.

“For well over a year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has prevented the cleanup of coal ash ponds in North Carolina,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at DEQ.

I'm sure many advocates are frustrated over these delays, but the activity in question, the "dewatering" of coal ash ponds, is a potential source for a great deal of permitted contamination of our water resources. Arriving at the least hazardous solution is imperative, lest the cure be worse than the sickness. All that said, it appears DEQ has been complicating the process with continual rewrites:

Coal ash violations at Asheville Airport

Duke Energy's superhero Charah is already in trouble:

Media outlets report the state Department of Environmental Quality cited Duke on Wednesday for two violations at the Asheville site. In both cases Duke, and site operator Charah, failed to notify the agency within 24 hours of a structural breach caused by severe erosion that had exposed coal ash and a plastic cover to the elements.

For a project that is so young it's still wearing diapers this is not good news, and should make the folks in Sanford and Lee Counties even more nervous. In the image to the right, the tan-colored area at the middle bottom is where much of the coal ash was moved to, and that little dark line to the left is the French Broad River. The coal ash might be farther from said river than it had been before, but not much.

Excerpts from Duke Energy's Quarterly Earnings Call

Rumors of their struggling are greatly exaggerated:

In June, we completed our $1.5 billion accelerated stock repurchase ahead of schedule. Further, last month we announced that the Board of Directors increased the quarterly dividend to $0.825 per share, doubling the annual growth rate to around 4 percent. This increase reflects our confidence in the strength of our core business and our cash flows.

Our balance sheet provides continued support for growth in the dividend. For the past 89 years, the dividend has demonstrated our commitment to delivering attractive total returns to shareholders.

Unless I'm mistaken, that stock repurchase was not financed or leveraged, it was the expenditure of liquid assets. Why is that important? Because with a corporation as large as Duke is, spending those big piles of cash is just as important as bringing them in. And when Duke isn't buying up their own stock to artificially enhance its value, they're buying up generation facilities of other companies, to increase their holdings:

Duke Energy coal ash propaganda in the op-ed columns

Misleading people is much cheaper than environmental stewardship:

In response to your Aug. 18 editorial ("Why not recycle coal ash instead of burying it?"), we at Duke Energy agree that as much coal ash as possible should be recycled. State policy leaders also strongly support the option and outlined provisions in the N.C. Coal Ash Management Act to encourage recycling.

The structural fill projects at the mines in Lee and Chatham counties, for example, are a form of beneficial reuse for the ash stored in basins. By reclaiming those sites and safely placing coal ash in them with many layers of protective liners, we will help repurpose land that can be reused for future development.

Bolding mine. There is only going to be one "liner" in the classic sense of a man-made polymer, the rest are a couple of layers of various composites of clay. Calling those "liners" is like calling the leaves over your head a roof. And that single polymer liner won't be a continuous (as in unbroken) liner, it will be several pieces that need to be connected and sealed, hopefully properly. But even if that liner doesn't leak, the nasty leachate water from the coal ash isn't going to stay in the impoundment, it's going to be pumped out on a regular basis and disposed of:

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