Tanker trucks loaded with coal ash, making what Duke Energy said are up to 150 trips daily, are rumbling along rural roads in southwestern Greenville County to Interstate 85, destined for a landfill 70 miles away in Homer, GA.
The toxin-laden ash that the Environmental Protection Agency has chosen to classify as nonhazardous is being scooped out of storage ponds and hauled away from at Duke’s W.S. Lee Plant near the Saluda River in Anderson County. The cleanup and removal of ash from the now idled coal combustion process is expected to take three years.
In contrast, at the Winyah Generating Station in Georgetown, Santee Cooper is selling its coal ash to an on-site recycler. The state-owned utility has contracted with the Sefa Group, which is operating a new “staged turbulent air reactor” process. The Lexington-based company’s process produces coal ash that meets standards for use in concrete. The operation started commercially in April.
Coal ash contains selenium, mercury, cadmium, copper, arsenic, nickel, lead and zinc.
“Santee Cooper aggressively pursued innovative opportunities to empty our ash ponds at Winyah, Jefferies and Grainger stations through recycling, or beneficially reusing, the ash,” the utility’s chief executive Lonnie Carter said in a statement. “I’m pleased we were able to come up with solutions that provide environmental and economic benefits and are also cost effective for our customers.” Sefa Group also has coal ash recycling plants in Lexington and in Newburg, MD.
Jimmy Knowles, Sefa vice president of market development and research, said no waste stream is created in the company’s new $50 million ash recycling process.
“We don’t take pond ash, and then 60% goes to concrete,” he said in a telephone interview. “Ours is 100% of what comes in is converted into a usable product.”
Henry Batten, president of Concrete Supply Co in Charlotte, said his industry needs coal ash to make strong concrete.
“It actually makes concrete more durable and lasts longer,” Batten said in a telephone interview. He said recycling coal ash in concrete permanently seals it.
Representatives of the ash recycling and concrete industries and a Duke Energy spokeswoman all said there are numerous factors for utilities to consider in deciding whether to bury the ash in a lined landfill or recycle it in concrete. Cost is No. 1.
Recyclers investing in a $50 million plant want assurances of a continuing, long-term quantity of ash.
Utility costs related to coal ash disposal can be passed along to consumers.
Duke’s 64-year-old W.S. Lee Steam Station was idled in November, the Charlotte-based company’s last coal-fired plant in South Carolina. Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric power company by number of customers, has converted a unit at the plant to natural gas and a separate 750-megawatt natural gas combined-cycle plant is being built. The plant manages coal ash in two active basins. The site also has an inactive ash basin constructed in the 1950s, an ash structural fill and an ash fill, all holding a total 3.2 million tons.
The company announced in September that ash from the inactive basin and ash fill area would be excavated as part of an agreement with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Duke has seven operating coal plants in North Carolina, and spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company is looking at all coal ash options, including innovative recycling technologies, and there are too many contributing factors to compare cost.
Culbert said in an email “there are so many variables that it would be difficult to do the type of comparison you’re looking for. The cost of recycling, for example, depends heavily on how much you’d have to reprocess the ash to make it suitable for recycling and how far you’d need to transport it to the recycling location.”
John Daniels, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor and chairman of Duke’s external National Ash Management Advisory Board, has said market demand for recycled ash to make concrete is about half the amount of ash currently produced and a fraction of ash already stored.
Thomas Adams, director of the American Coal Ash Association, said projections show coal and nuclear will continue to have the same market shares for another 25 years, which means coal ash isn’t going away. Adams said varying conditions of ash, particularly after it has been wet in ponds, is a factor in it being marketable. He said many utilities have used storage ponds “for a long time. It was very cheap. There was no motivation for them to do anything else.”
The North Carolina Coal Ash Management Commission staff in a June report recommended that among the recycling options the “greatest opportunity relates to the use of coal ash in producing concrete.”
“The technology curve for recycling coal ash, rather than treating it as rubbish, is in its infancy,” the report said. “Only in recent years have the potential dangers of impounding coal ash received widespread attention, leading to heightened academic and industry research efforts on beneficial use.” ‘If it’s done right’
Subsidiaries of investor-owned Duke Energy agreed in a U.S. Justice Department case following the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill to pay a $102 million fine for that spill and other criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. The agreement also requires Duke Energy Business Services, Duke Energy Carolinas, and Duke Energy Progress, to make $3.4 billion available for cleanup.
In 2008, the breach of a coal ash basin at a Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston, Tenn., power plant spilled 5.4 billion cubic yards of coal ash into nearby rivers and homes. No criminal charges were filed against the nation’s largest public utility, and a $1.2 billion cleanup is almost finished.
Nick Torre, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center at Chapel Hill, said recycling coal ash for concrete or lined structural fill is a good option “if it’s done right.”
“Certainly it is not easy to find landfill space and Santee Cooper has had great success starting up a partnership to take ash out of its unlined pits,” Torrey said. He said the recycling process means the utility is “not going to have to manage it long term.”
Torrey said that what Santee Cooper is doing is a “great solution.”
“The last place you want it is in a wet, unlined hole in the ground,” Torrey said. “The most important thing is get it out of the groundwater. Make sure it is not going to be polluting in the future.”
Duke has projected a $75 million cost for the first phase of the coal ash cleanup at the Anderson County plant. Duke is also evaluating whether to construct a landfill on the plant property for storage of some ash, which could allow some recycling. “They are going through a neighborhood’
Trucks leaving the plant, each loaded with about 23 tons of coal ash, all pass Mary Jenkins’ home. She said the big rigs are wearing out the road surface and traveling at high speeds.
“I guess they didn’t realize how they are going through a neighborhood,” she said while standing on her porch.
Jenkins said she has “four cats and a little tiny dog. There are children next door here. They ride their bikes out here.”
Up the road in Anderson County, on the other side of the Duke plant, Patsy Land said she watches the empty tanker trucks returning from the landfill.
“They go slower than the cars do,” Land said. “This road has always been kind of busy.”
Land said the new truck traffic means people are working in the community.
“That’s good to me,” she said.