- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

SANFORD, N.C. (AP) - David Holland trudged in the quiet woods behind his home, pushing back thick foliage and crossing dry creek beds until he reached his property line. “There,” he said, pointing to a few trucks on the other side. “They’re getting ready.”

Holland knows the property adjoining his 37-acre farm could soon be filled with dozens of workers getting ready to bury millions of tons of coal ash from Duke Energy waste pits spread across North Carolina.

State regulators have issued several permits to Charah Inc., and its subsidiary Green Meadow LLC to dispose the waste in the old clay mine behind Holland’s property in Lee County, and another one in nearby Chatham County. But a coalition of community leaders and environmental groups is fighting the plan.

Like so many others in the predominantly rural communities, Holland’s worried the ash will ruin the quality of life. He says burying waste in the mines would threaten groundwater in an area where some people still use wells for drinking. He fears trucks transporting the waste from Duke’s plants will tear up roads, and trains carrying the ash could pose another danger.

Duke and state regulators insist there’s no environmental risk. They say plastic liners will be used to contain the ash, and groundwater monitoring wells will be installed to detect any problems.



“We’re taking every step that we can to ensure that … the groundwater and the environment are protected,” Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said.

But residents say they don’t trust Duke or state regulators to protect them.

“How can we? We saw what happened,” Holland said, referring to last year’s massive coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. He also noted that Duke recently pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act at five North Carolina plants. Duke paid more than $100 million in fines and restitution.

The battle in Lee and Chatham counties is one that could play out in other North Carolina communities as the nation’s largest electricity company complies with the state’s new coal ash law passed last year after the spill.

Duke stores more than 150 million tons of coal ash in 32 dumps at 14 power plants in North Carolina, all of which are leaching toxic contaminants into groundwater. The ash - waste left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity - contains such toxic heavy metals as arsenic, selenium, chromium and mercury.

Under the law, the dumps must either be capped or cleaned out by 2029. Duke also has to move ash from several high priority sites to lined landfills by August 2019.

That put Duke under a tight timeframe, Brooks said.

So the electricity company turned to Charah, a Louisville, Kentucky-based company that handles coal ash. Charah had already worked with Duke, moving coal ash from waste pits in Asheville to the airport, where the material was used as structural fill.

Charah found land for ash - two clay mines used for years to make bricks. With plastic liners - and layers of impervious clay - Charah said the ash could be stored safely.

Under the plan, Charah would transport and be responsible for ash at the mines, including “monitoring the groundwater for 30 years.”

Brooks said geography of the sites was important.

“They are centrally located in the state, they are close to rail, and they were available within the timeline that we needed in order to meet the requirement of the law,” he said.

The Chatham County mine, which is being developed first, will handle a total of 12 million tons of ash from three Duke plants. The Lee County site will hold 8 million tons of ash from two plants. But even if everything goes according to Duke’s plans, the Charlotte-based company will still have to find other places to move millions of tons of waste.

“With some of our other projects, we have a little more leeway to develop the plans and look at other options,” Brooks said.

But the opposition in Lee and Chatham counties shows it won’t be easy moving waste to other communities.

As soon as the plans were announced, people began holding meetings and fundraising events to fight the proposal. Almost overnight, signs went up in front yards: “Say No to Coal Ash.” Environmental groups offered help.

Charah needed several permits from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, including ones for modifying existing mining permits.

But activists packed public hearings. They said this wasn’t really a reclamation project as Duke and Charah claimed - just a convenient place to dump ash. They questioned the safety of the liners: would they really hold up for generations as promised? They said many people in the community had drinking wells that would be impacted by groundwater contamination.

The state environmental department in June approved modified mining permits for both sites, and two months later, approved water quality permits near the portion of the mines with wetlands. Charah still needs a permit to build a rail spur on the Chatham County site, as well as a federal water quality permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We know it’s an uphill battle,” said Judy Hogan, 78, a leader of Chatham Citizens. “It’s hard for people to believe it can be stopped. But it can be stopped.”

Meanwhile, the coalition has filed two legal complaints challenging the permits. In one, opponents say the project would have a disproportionate impact on black and low-income families who live near the sites - something regulators should have taken into account.

While exploring the clay mine adjoining his property, Holland discovered the headstone of a black U.S. Army soldier who served in World War I. There appears to be other graves.

“There’s so much history here,” said Holland, 50, a former U.S. Marine.

When the welder bought his property in 1991, he thought he found a peaceful spot for his family. A few years ago, he began raising goats, building a barn and restoring an old grain silo. But things have changed. His wife died of breast cancer a few years ago. Now, he’s facing the prospect of a coal ash dump at the edge of his property.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen. There are some days you just don’t feel like going on,” he said.

___

Follow Associated Press writer Mitch Weiss at https://Twitter.com/mitchsweiss .

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