Friday, December 19, 2014

Chatham County opposes Duke's ash disposal

Chatham County commissioners cited "substantial health and environmental risks" this week in opposing Duke Energy's plan to dump coal ash into open-pit clay mines.

Commissioners adopted a resolution against Duke's plan, announced last month, to send 2.9 million tons of ash to mines in Chatham and Lee counties.

Lee County officials have said they want the county to be compensated for taking the waste, likening it to host fees typically paid for regional solid waste landfills.

The Chatham resolution says the plan would expose residents to risks from potentially toxic elements in ash. It identifies "shortcomings" in the legislation this year that ordered Duke to close its 32 ash ponds, including lack of local control over ash disposal and fees.
Duke has said it needs to move quickly to meet deadlines set out in the legislation. The initial phase of work would move ash from four power plants, including Riverbend west of Charlotte, starting early next year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Duke scientists develop coal ash tracers

Duke University researchers said Tuesday they have developed a new tool to tell when water is contaminated by coal ash and not by other sources.

Regulators will be able to "trace the coal ash effluents to their source," Avner Vengosh, a Duke professor of geochemistry and water quality, said in a statement.

The research is timely for North Carolina, where contaminated groundwater has been found at all 14 of Duke Energy's coal-fired power plants and seepage reported from ash pond dams. What hasn't been clear is whether the contamination came from ash or natural sources.

Duke, under the legislature's orders, is drilling hundreds of new wells at its plants to detect the extent, flow and sources of contaminated groundwater.

Chemical variations have previously been used to identify ash contaminants. The forensic tracers Duke University developed are based on the distinctive characteristics of two elements found in ash, boron and strontium.

The isotopes in boron that come from coal ash always differ from naturally-occurring boron, said Laura Ruhl, a former Duke graduate student now teaching at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Strontium is less distinct, she said, but using the two elements together provides "definitive evidence" whether contamination is from ash.

Vengosh and Ruhl published their findings this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. Co-authors included Gary Dwyer and Heileen Hsu-Kim of Duke and James Hower of the University of Kentucky.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dan River bottom life is thriving, DENR says

North Carolina's environmental agency says bugs "appear to be thriving" at the bottom of the Dan River downstream of Duke Energy's February coal ash spill.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff sampled upriver and about two miles downriver of the spill on Oct. 28. It was DENR's first testing of the aquatic insects, worms and other invertebrates at the base of the food chain. Their numbers, type and diversity signal a river's overall health.

Findings were similar in both places and had the highest biological rating, the department said.

Tests of water quality, river sediment and fish tissue are continuing. The results will be factored into a natural resource damage assessment that state and federal agencies are conducting.

Biologists have said that river-bottom creatures were likely smothered by up to 39,000 tons of ash that Duke's Dan River power plant dumped into 70 miles of river.

Operations to suck up the deposits got only 3,000 tons of ash and sediment. Duke and the Environmental Protection Agency said trying to retrieve all the ash would do more ecological harm than leaving it in place.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Judge's orders set stage for N.C. v. Alcoa trial

A federal judge has issued a couple of orders in North Carolina's legal wrangle with Alcoa over ownership of the bed of the Yadkin River, in a prelude to a trial early next year.

The aluminum giant and the state, you'll recall, have fought for years over renewal of Alcoa's hydroelectric license for 40 miles of the Yadkin east of Charlotte. The state has argued Alcoa doesn't deserve free access to the state's resources after shuttering its Badin smelting plant.

Things got more interesting when North Carolina asserted that the state, not Alcoa, owns the riverbed under the Yadkin. Alcoa, which dammed the river nearly a century ago, claims it has longstanding title.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued an order Thursday on motions for summary judgment from both sides, granting some and denying others. He instructed both sides to be ready for trial on Jan. 15.

Ryke Longest, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University's law school, said Boyle made a couple of noteworthy decisions. Longest represents the Yadkin Riverkeeper, a former party to the case.

Most importantly, he said, the judge granted North Carolina's motion that it made a prima facie -- correct until proven otherwise -- case for ownership of the riverbed. That shifts the burden to Alcoa to prove at trial that it holds title.

Boyle denied Alcoa's claims that the company owns the riverbed by virtue of its long occupation there. He also ruled against Alcoa's argument that the river was not navigable at the time North Carolina became a state. States own the beds of navigable rivers, other courts have held.

In a second order, Boyle denied Alcoa's motion to strike the affidavits of four expert witnesses for the state, meaning they will likely be able to testify at trial.

"What it means is we're going to have a very interesting trial starting in January," Longest said.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State approves new metals limits in water

North Carolina's Environmental Management Commission has approved long-overdue water quality standards that stiffen limits on metals, which can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

Federal law requires the updates every three years to recognize research on pollutants' effects. North Carolina is four years late, a delay state officials blame on the complexity of the standards and policy changes that made it harder to enact new rules.

The changes won't take effect until the Environmental Protection Agency approves, and EPA has already signaled some concerns.

The standards include a provision called the "biological trump" that allows some concentrations of metals to exceed the limits if there's no evidence aquatic life has been harmed.

EPA says biological studies are of little use in preventing water pollution and don't replace the need to enforce pollutant limits. We'll update when EPA rules.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Environmental advocates launch coal ash site

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and its partners have added an interactive tool to their website about the 450 coal ash ponds spread across nine states.

The site can now generate power plant-specific reports with data on coal ash capacity, dam hazard ratings and known contamination.

The feature was added as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to release the first federal rules on ash in December. The agency's key decision will be whether to regulate ash as hazardous waste. EPA rules to be released next September, on wastewater discharges from power plants, could also limit use of ash ponds.

The coal-intensive Southeast was the scene of the two spills that drew federal attention to coal ash regulation -- the first by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2008, followed by Duke Energy's spill into North Carolina and Virginia's Dan River in February.

The alliance worked with Appalachian Voices, the North Carolina Conservation Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center on the site.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Faulty shale-gas wells contaminate water, study finds

Poorly constructed shale gas wells, not hydraulic fracturing, are to blame for contaminated water in Pennsylvania and Texas, says a study by scientists at Duke University and four other schools.

The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers analyzed the gas content of more than 130 drinking water wells over the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania and Texas' Barnett shale. They found contamination in eight clusters of wells. 

Hydraulic fracturing extracts gas from deep underground. The suspicion has been that methane -- the main component of natural gas -- from fracking or horizontal drilling had migrated up into drinking water aquifers.

The new study appears to rule that out. Instead it found, in four contaminated clusters, that the methane leaked at shallow depths from faulty rings of cement around gas-well shafts. Three more clusters suggested methane leaked through bad well casings.

While drilling has contaminated water, the scientists say, most of the causes can be prevented.

The researchers used noble gases such as helium to trace methane emissions because they mix with natural gas but aren't affected by microbes or oxidation. Measuring the noble gases determined the source of the methane and how it reaches drinking water aquifers. 

Scientists from Duke, Ohio State University, Stanford University, Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester took part in the peer-reviewed study. Funding came from the National Science Foundation and Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.