Until this week, residents of a small trailer park off Colon Road in Sanford didn't know the old brick mine across the street could soon be a dump for millions of tons of potentially toxic coal ash.
"All of us were totally blindsided," says Debbie Hall, a Lee County resident with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. No one knew because Duke Energy, which is responsible for the ash, did not have to ask permission from local leaders or even notifiy them of its plans. Based on state law, the company could have permission from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to dump at the sites by early 2015—without conducting a study to determine potential harm to human health and the environment.
The Coal Ash Management Act, shuttled through the General Assembly after a 39,000-ton spill into the Dan River near Eden earlier this year, endows Duke Energy with broad powers to negotiate ash dumping without clearing it with local leaders or paying any local fees.
"One city planner told me she found out from the newspaper," Hall says.
Lee County might not have known about Duke's proposal, but it's clear planning was underway for months with the energy company.
According to state documents, the limited liability corporation—Green Meadow LLC— that has applied to take over the mining permits on the coal ash dump was officially formed in May as public outcry for coal ash reform swelled.
Hall spent Monday going door to door in the Sanford trailer park, relaying the news of Duke Energy's impending plan to dispose of about 3 million tons of coal ash in two unused clay mines in Sanford and Moncure in southern Chatham County.
The local response has been anger. "They want to make us a dumping ground for some reason," Hall says. "But we cannot be a sacrificial lamb for dirty industry."
Most leaders in these rural counties south of the Triangle found out about Duke's plans on Nov. 13, the same day that the company turned in its disposal proposal to DENR. Duke has been ordered by state lawmakers to close designated "high-risk" coal basins in Eden, Asheville, Mount Holly and Wilmington by Aug. 1, 2019, and move the 17.5 million tons of ash elsewhere.
The ash spill into the Dan River spurred widespread calls for reforms at the nation's largest electric utility, particularly over its storing of toxic coal byproduct in leaky pits across the state for decades. The ash contains potentially toxic metals such as arsenic and cadmium, both of which have been linked to cancer.
Duke chose the rural dumping sites in Sanford and Moncure for their proximity to rail lines and their abundance of clay. The landfills will be lined with synthetic material, ostensibly to prevent leaking—although liners can and do break.
Duke Energy says it would transport ash by train or truck to Sanford and Moncure over the next year. The company also plans to dump at sites in Asheville and Jetersville, Virginia, which is near the Eden plant.
Duke Senior Vice President of Ash Basin Strategy John Elnitsky says the plan "minimizes the impact to neighboring communities and complies with North Carolina's new coal ash management policies."
"We are prepared to proceed as soon as we have the necessary approvals from the state," Elnitsky added.
Some critics say the plans may have untold consequences for these regions. State permitting will not require an environmental impact study for the project.
Lee County Manager John Crumpton indicated last week that Duke's plan is designed to bypass financial compensation or local permission for dumping its waste in the county.
Without this year's coal ash bill, Crumpton says Duke would have been required to apply for a landfill franchise with the county, an agreement that requires local approval and could generate local permitting fees.
But the law only directs Duke to acquire "structural fill" and waste permits from DENR, with all fees paid into the department's Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, which handles enforcement and permitting for state mining activities.
Additionally, the legislation specifically forbids counties or municipalities from drafting ordinances regulating coal disposal. Crumpton says legal action may be the county's only option for stopping the ash dump.
"Everybody's getting paid in this except for Lee County," Crumpton said. "It's extremely unfair."
Charlie Parks, the Republican chairman of the Lee Board of Commissioners, says he doesn't believe coal ash to be toxic, but the county deserves its "fair share" financially.
"As long as we're going to put up with all of the hearings and whatever else down here, we need some remuneration," said Parks. "Not only that, but all those counties who've been making money off the Duke plants for years, why aren't those counties being the dumping ground?"
Sanford Councilman Sam Gaskins, a Democrat, said he's pessimistic that local leaders can stop the dump, given their lack of power in the process.
"They don't really care," Gaskins said. "They're going to do what they please."
Diana Hales, a Chatham County Democrat and former DENR employee elected to the county Board of Commissioners this month, says Duke Energy should dispose of the coal ash where it lies. Hales says the company could choose alternative disposal methods, including storing the ash in concrete on site rather than moving the waste elsewhere to pits that may someday leak.
"They certainly are advertising that they are a good neighbor," says Hales. "But they have an enormous problem that they have to fix."
Debra Champion lives near the Lee-Moore county line. She says she felt "sick to her stomach" when she learned of the proposal.
"Two counties in the middle of the state should not have to bear the burden for the entire state," Champion says. "We will be having millions of tons of this within a 20-mile radius. It's unthinkable, it's sickening."
Hall says it's another environmental concern for this region, which is expected to be hub of natural gas drilling, or "fracking," in North Carolina in the coming years.
Hall, a fracking opponent like many in this region, says locals may not be successful in stopping either fracking or coal ash dumping, but they must speak out.
"It may be a done deal," she says. "But I have to be able to look my granddaughter in the eye and say I did everything I knew to stop this from happening."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The state's ash tray"