There’s a lot to not like about my employer, Duke Energy. Trust me, I’m aware of it. I do not get my electricity for free or at a discount. I pay the same per kilowatt-hour as everybody else. And like just about every Fortune 500 company, the corporate executives and shareholders are treated like royalty while the customers and rank-and-file are rarely given a second thought, especially when it comes to money.
But everyone has a breaking point. When you start using your megaphone to spread outright lies – things that are factually inaccurate that you KNOW are factually inaccurate – I will not sit around and be quiet. Where my company and its industry deserve defending, I will defend.
DISCLAIMER: This should go without saying, but legally I’m required to say it. I am an employee, but not an official spokesman for Duke Energy or its policies. The opinions expressed on my personal blog are mine only (yeah, shocker, right?) and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Duke Energy Corporation or any of its subsidiaries.
Now that we got that out the way…. It’s time for another 2-part rant. There are lies, exaggerations, and simple nonsense out there about my company and the business of supplying electricity in general. I have some things to say about my company here, and then about the industry in general.
Until 2008, about 99% of the world didn’t know, or care, about coal ash. Nearly every power plant built from the 1920s to the 1950s used coal as its fuel. The coal is placed in a humongous structure and is burned, the heat is used to produce steam, which spins the blades of a turbine, and electricity is generated. After the coal is burned, insane quantities of ash are left over. Along the way, it was discovered that you could dig a massive landfill, mix the ash with water, and bury it in the landfill and move on. A dam would be built along with the ash pond to keep it from going anywhere. It was a fairly cheap way to get rid of the waste, and soon every electivity provider in the country was doing it.
Then at the end of 2008, the dam at an ash pond for a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal plant ruptured. more than 1 million tons of the content of the ash pond emptied into the nearby river. Coal ash has plenty of contaminants in it, but it is also extremely ugly. Remember the M*A*S*H episode where Hawkeye & BJ were trying to help a fat soldier lose weight quickly so he stay in the Army? Remember when Klinger came to their table to offer the fat guy a bucket of chipped beef, which he had to turn down? Klinger said, “Sarge, how can you resist such rich, gray slop” as he spooned up a ladle-full of the stuff soldiers normally call S.O.S. That’s coal ash for you. Gross.
Well, after this massive failure, everybody wanted to talk about coal ash. “Environmentalists” (more on them in the next post) started screaming, “THIS IS GOING TO KILL EVERYONE! ALL HUMANS WILL DIE FROM THIS! WE TOLD YOU THIS STUFF WOULD KILL PEOPLE!” In actuality, of course, no one was talking about the danger of the ash until something bad happened. But whatever the motive, utilities had to examine their facilities to make sure this wouldn’t happen to them.
Then came February 2, 2014. Dan River Steam Station, a coal-fired plant of Duke Energy near the NC border with Virginia, had a problem, a water pipe running underneath the ash pond ruptured, pouring water and ash into the river. By the time the flow was stopped, 40,000 tons of the mess had gotten out. All the traditional media, with their 90% Democrat, private-business-hating reporters, descended like vultures, having already written their articles and columns before the even arrived in Eden, NC – “toxic flow of chemicals destined to kill the land and people, Duke has always known this would happen and how many it would kill, but this is the way they could maximize profit, so screw the land, water and people.” And by the time they got there, “See? Duke is trying to kill people and destroy the land!
(SIDE NOTE: Has it never occurred to these morons that if Duke Energy really were out to kill people, that we would have fewer customers to make money off of? We want MORE people here, not fewer. Idiots.)
What followed were 2 years of political posturing and law-creating. The governor of NC at the time was Pat McCrory, who previously had been mayor of Charlotte for 14 years and a 29-year employee of Duke Energy. So, of course, the “environmentalists” claimed, the Gov was in cahoots with Duke to make sure they never did anything with the ash so they could destroy the maximum land and people. McCrory had to put on a front that he hated Duke as much as the “environmentalists” to minimize damage to his administration and 2016 re-election bid. Laws were passed requiring all 32 ash ponds to be closed within 15 years. There were several options. New landfills with lined barriers could be built to store the ash. New, lined landfills could be built at the plant sites. The ash could be “capped in place,” an option where a new liner and additional soil could be be put on top of an existing ash pond, if there was evidence there was no chance the contents of the pond could get mixed with rivers or water supplies.
Surprising absolutely no one, the “environmentalists” demanded the same treatment for all 32 ponds – dig up the ash and take it somewhere else, even though every location you identify as a landing spot will be met with countless lawsuits and screams of “take the ash somewhere else – but not here!” Leading this effort would be the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. A better name for them is the Southern Environmental Lawsuit Center. That’s all they do is sue. It does not matter what solution is developed for every conceivable environmental issue. Their response will always be, “No, that’s wrong. Here, you have been served.”
Of course, digging up the ash, trucking to somewhere else (assuming you could ever come up with a “somewhere else” to satisfy these psychos) is the most expensive option for the cleanup. And that’s not just money. You can’t just pull an Elizabeth Montgomery and twitch your nose to make something disappear. There are tons of other negative impacts. Please read this article that details how much time, resources, and infrastructure damage will be incurred if every pond got what the “environmentalists” wanted.
Utilities around the country have developed preliminary closure plans for surface impoundments storing coal ash, gypsum, and other coal combustion residuals (CCR). Some ash ponds are already in the process of closing. To close, the utility must either remove the CCR and redispose of it elsewhere, or prepare the site and close and cap it in place.
In litigation and through the media, citizen groups have argued in favor of closure by removal, but either option is available under EPA’s regulations. Closure in place is allowed only if the utility can demonstrate satisfaction of environmental performance standards, and closure by removal allows for reduced long term regulatory obligations. In that sense, the regulations provide a bit of an incentive to close by removal.
On the other hand, the regulations also recognize a benefit in closing as soon as reasonably possible. The longer the closure process takes, the more time ash is left unsecured and at risk of exposure to the elements.
So how long should the closure process take? One data point is how long it would take to excavate the CCR and transport it for redisposal elsewhere. For larger CCR units, the task is daunting.
To illustrate, consider an ash pond storing 10 million cubic yards of CCR. That’s a large pond, but some hold more than twice as much. Let’s assume there are landfills within 10 miles that can accept that much material, although that may well not the case. Let’s also assume the utility can mobilize an unlimited supply of triaxle dump trucks. The capacity of such a truck can reach up to 24 yards, depending on the configuration, but weight restrictions may limit the volume. To round out the scenario, let’s assume each truck hauls off 20 cubic yards per trip.
For an ash pond of 10 million cubic yards, that’s 500,000 truck trips. Five hundred thousand truck trips. If you assume one truck every 10 minutes, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days, that’s 9.5 years of truck traffic. A more realistic five day schedule would consume more than 13 years.
In this scenario, trucks loaded with ash will travel 5 million miles over local roads and highways. While some power plants are in isolated locations, others are located in or near neighborhoods and towns. Is that kind of traffic by homes and local schools really the best solution for the people who live near these facilities? The project would require 81 million ton-miles on local roads and highways over that 13 year period. That has significant consequences for state and local highway departments.
The primary argument in favor of closure by removal has to do with the potential for ash to be in contact with groundwater, especially if the pond is located near a stream or river. If that happens, the concern is the potential for metals or other constituents that occur naturally in coal to migrate and be detected in monitoring wells. We’ll know more about that when groundwater monitoring results become available next year.
On the other hand, even if that occurs, there is more than one way to address it. Depending on local factors, it may be possible to consolidate ash where the ground is higher or the water table is lower, or to build a subsurface barrier between the ash and groundwater flow. It is also possible that the dewatering itself will reduce the potential for interaction with groundwater, as EPA has acknowledged. If there is a source of drinking water in the vicinity, it can and should be tested as well.
Subsurface hydrology can be complex and difficult to sort out. However, with closure by removal, the air emissions from diesel traffic are clearly and immediately available for local exposure. The diesel traffic associated with our excavation scenario would amount to approximately 500 pounds of volatile organic compounds, 1,900 pounds of carbon monoxide, 8,200 pounds of nitrous oxides, 195 pounds of PM2.5, and 211 pounds of PM10, all available for respiration by anyone in the area. That’s on top of 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide.
To emphasize, these are conservative estimates in that they assume no work stoppages, no weather delays, no holidays, and consistent loading of one truck every ten minutes. It assumes a normal work week of five days, but with a 24-hour operation of three shifts per day, which may not be possible. The mileage and emission figures only reflect the trip from the ash pond to the landfill. That doesn’t count the return trip back to the ash pond, diesel consumed while the trucks idle, the trips to and from the truck’s point of origin, or the use of equipment necessary to excavate, stage and load the ash, all of which adds additional environmental impacts. This also assumes zero accidents and zero spillage, which may not be realistic based on a half-million truck trips. The concerns grow commensurately if an ash pond has more than 10 million cubic yards or available landfill capacity is farther than 10 miles away.
What does all this mean for ash pond closures? For some ponds, especially the smaller ones, excavation may well make sense, depending on site-specific considerations. However, for larger units, it’s harder to see closure by removal as the best option. Where common sense measures are reasonably available to manage ash that is capped in place, that may well prove to be the better alternative—even before considering cost, with environmental issues and local impacts as the primary consideration.
 “As noted, EPA’s risk assessment shows that the highest risks are associated with CR surface impoundments due to the hydraulic head imposed by the impounded water. Dewatered CCR surface impoundments will no longer be subjected to the hydraulic head so the risk of releases, including the risk that the unit will leach into the groundwater, would be no greater than those from CCR landfills.” 80 Fed. Reg. 21,301, 21,342 (Apr. 17, 2015).
 Based on pollutant estimates per mile for a Class VII heavy duty truck as found in Table 2 of EPA, Average In-Use Emissions from Heavy-Duty Trucks, No. EPA420-F-08-027 (Oct. 2008).
 Assuming 1.456 grams of carbon dioxide per mile from diesel consumption.
So, the next time you hear some cat screaming that Duke Energy or whoever you get your electricity from is purposefully trying to destroy the environment and your personal well-being, tell them to take a lithium and read this.
More to come!