Duke Energy gives inside look at coal ash cleanup

Thursday, January 14, 2016
Duke Energy shows coal ash cleanup
Duke Energy gave ABC11 an inside look at the coal ash cleanup in Eden

As the state and Duke Energy wrangle over the plans and timelines for cleaning up dozens of coal ash pits around North Carolina, the energy giant is moving forward with excavation of the toxic sludge at the site that started it all, so to speak.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a pipe underneath one of the coal ash pits at the Dan River Steam Station caved in, and tens of thousands of tons of sludge went pouring into the River. For days, the river ran dark as engineers from Duke Energy tried to stop the massive leak.

Watch: Jon Camp chats with PIO Jeff Brooks with Duke Energy

Soon after, a second pipe would break with far less impact. But by then, state media, the public, and lawmakers were waking up to the inherent risks posed by coal ash pits.

For nearly a century, Duke Energy had been dumping the byproduct of burning coal in unlined pits, always (and necessarily) positioned next to rivers or natural water sources.

The end result was 32 massive holes in the ground filled with toxic sludge, some of which have long since been "closed" and are now completely covered in vegetation.

The state formulated the Coal Ash Management Plan, requiring Duke to effectively and safety shut down all 32 ponds, and putting the Department of Environmental Quality in change of assessing each pond and formulating individual clean-up plans.

"This is priority one for Duke energy right now," said Jeff Brooks with Duke Energy. "This is the most important thing that many of us have worked on for several years now and we have an army of engineers that have developed closure plans for these sites."

While some ponds may be allowed to be "capped in place," meaning the ash wouldn't have to be excavated, many ponds will have to be completely emptied and the ash moved to lined storage pits.

The Dan River site is among the furthest along in that process and on Thursday, Duke Energy is giving a close up look at what that entails.

Duke's actual coal plant in Eden, the Dan River Steam Station, has been shut down for years. Now, Duke is in the process of demolishing the facility.

Read More: Environmental officials say Dan River has recovered from massive coal ash spill

The company is also in the process of "dewatering" the coal ash pits at the site. Company spokesman Jeff Brooks said the ash will be stored dry, which means they have to drain the pits and dry out the remaining ash.

"We've made significant progress excavating coal ash here on the site, we've moved already more than 66 thousand tons of coal ash here and will exponentially add to that with our rail system now in place here going forward," Brooks said.

There is dry coal ash already on site, however, kept in stacks next to a rail line. Since October, Brooks said the company has sent 21 trains, pulling 30 cars, each filled with 103 tons of coal ash, to the Maplewood landfill in Jetersville Co., Virginia.

Brooks said the company is also building a lined landfill on-site in Eden which will store about half the ash from the site. Construction on that pit is set to start in July.

Brooks said Duke is about to begin similar rail operation at it's Sutton Plant in Wilmington. He said the company can move as much ash in one train-load as they did in all the trucking of coal ash they've done since October. "It's a significant volume that can move over rail," he said.

Brooks also said the company will double the size of the train at the Dan River Steam Station next month. All the ash on the site has to be excavated by 2019.

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