CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — With 108 million tons of coal ash stored in dumps across the state, a North Carolina environmental committee is looking at ways the waste can be safely recycled instead of buried in new landfills.
The panel has less than two months to evaluate new options for coal ash — a byproduct that remains after coal is burned to generate electricity and contains numerous toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury. It also will examine whether state rules for "beneficial reuse" of the ash adequately protect people and the environment.
The committee will present its findings to lawmakers Jan. 15.
"We do have a history ... of using these materials for beneficial purposes," said Bob Rubin, chairman of the committee of the Environmental Management Commission — the agency that interprets state environmental laws and writes the rules governing how they are enforced.
The provision to create the committee — which met for the first time this week — was included in a coal ash cleanup bill passed by lawmakers in response to the massive Feb. 2 spill at a Duke Energy dump in Eden, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
Charlotte-based Duke, the nation's largest electricity company, has 33 coal ash pits at 14 plants in North Carolina. Under the new law, Duke is required to remove its ash at four priority sites within five years. The remaining dumps are to be either removed or capped with a layer of plastic and dirt by 2029.
Duke has submitted plans to North Carolina regulators to move millions of tons of ash by truck and train from those four priority sites — Asheville, Dan River, Riverbend and Sutton — to other locations, including open-pit clay mines used by the brick industry in Chatham and Lee counties. The proposal has to be approved by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Citizens in Lee say they'll fight Duke's plans.
State officials say Duke's leaky unlined dumps are contaminating surrounding groundwater and environmentalists have called for all the ash to be removed to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes.
During the committee's meeting in Charlotte, members heard from experts who said that coal ash has been recycled for years at sites across the country to make concrete, asphalt and other building products.
About half of the more than 100 million tons of coal ash created each year in the United States is recycled for uses federal officials have deemed safe as long as the toxic materials are encapsulated in the finished products.
In South Carolina, Santee Cooper Power takes its water-logged ash to a factory where its dried out and used to make concrete.
Duke has an existing program seeking beneficial uses for its waste. Ash from Duke's Asheville plant has been used as fill on a runway project at the city's airport.
The state's new coal ash law places a moratorium until August on using ash as constructional fill, except for road construction.
Experts say they're studying other options for ash, including using it in agricultural applications. Still, much of Duke's ash could end up in landfills.
"If it's going to take five, 10, 15 years to close all of these coal ash basins, it makes sense to do the initial research to allow for some of these other applications to come to fruition," said John Daniels, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.