01/24/09 — Company says coal ash ponds no threat here

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Company says coal ash ponds no threat here

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 24, 2009 11:46 PM

Coal ash ponds have been an inconspicuous part of the Wayne County landscape since the 1950s and most residents are probably unaware of the pond's existence just a few miles west of Goldsboro near the Neuse River.

The ponds might have remained anonymous had it not been for a Tennessee coal ash pond that ruptured last month, flooding the surrounding community with nearly one billion gallons of coal ash sludge.

There have been no problems locally, said Progress Energy spokesman Scott Sutton, and a state official said she is unaware of any spills at any of the ponds statewide.

"There are emergency procedures in place to deal with a number of scenarios including a catastrophic failure of the dam," Sutton said.

Wayne County emergency management officials are aware of the pond at Progress Energy's Lee plant, but said the county does not have its own emergency plan to deal with a spill.

The county does have a plan in case of a failure at the Quaker Neck dam at the power plant, said Emergency Services Director Joe Gurley.

Gurley said Lee plant officials "do a good job" of staying in touch with local fire departments on an annual basis to make them aware of any changes and to help ensure that new firefighters are familiar with the facility.

The site has four inactive ponds that have been reclaimed -- meaning they no longer contain water. The former ponds are part of the company's forestry program and some of the land is even being used by a local hunting club.

Active ponds, Sutton said, are inspected on a regular basis and all of Progress Energy's ponds had been inspected during the past 12 months.

"The events at TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) prompted us to review inspections," he said. "We went back to look at the current inspections to ensure we didn't miss anything."

The review, he said, confirmed the structural integrity of all of the company's ponds.

Company employees conduct a "drive around" of the ponds every week and the ponds are visually inspected monthly. An annual inspection is conducted by an independent engineering firm that reviews monthly inspections and data.

Every five years an independent engineering firm inspects and reviews the ponds and the results are sent to the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The last annual inspection at the Lee pond was May 2008 and the last five-year inspection was December 2004.

The company's seven ponds scattered across the state comply with all local, state and national regulations and are permitted by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Sutton said.

But according to a recent Associated Press report, only a few regulations are in place.

According to the AP analysis, based on 2005 data, the most current available, 95.8 million tons of coal ash were produced by 721 power pants generating at least 100 megawatts of power. Of that total, nearly 20 million tons went into surface ponds.

The rest ends up in landfill, is sold for use in concrete or other uses.

The analysis reports that millions of tons of what it calls "toxic" coal ash are pilling up in ash ponds in 32 states.

There is currently one active pond at the Lee power plant site. Over the years others have been closed as they filled, the ash has hardened and trees now grow on them, Sutton said.

The plant's three coal-fired units produce 400 megawatts of electricity. The units consume about 1 million tons of coal annually and produce about 100,000 tons of ash. The amounts vary depending on how much power the plant is called on to produce.

The Lee power plant also has four combustion turbine units.

The first coal unit began operating here in 1951.

The 143-acre pond was built in 1980 and has a storage capacity of about 640 million gallons. It is surrounded by a compacted earthen dam.

The current Wayne County pond is one of 14 in the state and is the fifth largest, according to the AP report.

The 14 ponds, seven owned by Progress Energy and the other seven by Duke Energy, store a mixture of ash and the noncombustible ingredients of coal that are captured by equipment designed to reduce air pollution as the coal is burned.

"If it wasn't for air pollution control technology a lot of that ash would fly out of the stacks," Sutton said.

That is where the term "fly ash" originates. About 15 percent of the ash, called bottom ash, is made of heavier material and falls to the bottom of the collection unit, he said.

The ponds are not required to be lined, nor is there any requirement that groundwater be monitored.

Progress Energy, however, participates in an industry-wide initiative being led by the Utility Solid Waste Activity Group, a consortium of electricity producers based in Washington, D.C., to monitor groundwater around ash ponds.

Monitoring equipment has been placed around the local pond and is checked every six months. The data is sent to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The department is in process of renewing the plant's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Program permit, said Susan Massengill, a spokesperson for the department.

Ms. Massengill said the program is a EPA "standby" for regulating water that is discharged into waterways and includes monitoring for oil/grease, total suspended solids, total arsenic, total selenium, pH, total nitrogen and total phosphorous. The limits are based on a review of discharges over the prior three years.

"The plant has been in full compliance with its current permit that has no limits on arsenic and selenium," she said.

That is expected to change, she said.

She said that the levels of selenium have reached a threshold to prompt a limit on how much the plant can discharge. There are no other changes, she said.

Ms. Massengill said she was not aware of any spills having ever occurred in the state.

She noted that Progress Energy "has committed" to eliminating the ponds and strictly using the dry ash process similar to a landfill. The Lee plant could make that change by 2014, she said.

"We are looking for future options for coal ash since it (pond) is nearing capacity including beneficial reuse as well as dry storage (of the ash)," Sutton said.

The ash is used in cement and cinder blocks (that is where cinder comes from) and in some cases for structural fill. The cement industry is the leading user of the ash, Sutton said.

The coal-burning process also creates zenospheres, lightweight hollow spheres that are harvested and sold. Zenospheres are used in the production of bowling balls, surfboards, paint, fireproofing on the space shuttle and brake pads.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.