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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Opposition forming to Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Forces against the natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Eastern North Carolina, announced last week, are quickly mustering.

A coalition of 22 conservation groups have formed the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. The groups say the pipeline route would disrupt ecologically sensitive areas, including parts of the Monongahela and George Washington national forests in West Virginia and Virginia.

The route would cross karst topography formed by soluble rocks such as limestone that form underground drainage systems, the alliance says, placing water supplies at risk.

Supervisors in Nelson County, Va., which includes part of the George Washington forest, passed a resolution opposing the pipeline on Tuesday.

Duke Energy and Charlotte's Piedmont Natural Gas, which solicited proposals for the $5 billion line, last week said Richmond-based Dominion Resources would build and operate it. The line, which needs federal approval, would tap gas deposits in the Marcellus and Utica shale basins.

The 42-inch diameter pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia would require a construction right-of-way 125 feet wide and a permanent easement 75 feet wide, Dominion says. In North Carolina, a smaller 36-inch pipe would need rights-of-way 110 feet and 50 feet wide.

Dominion says it expects to complete the route planning by December, with construction of the line in 2017 and 2018.

Open houses will start Monday at points along the pipeline route in all three states.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The other end of that new gas pipeline

Remember the news, a couple of days ago, that Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas will partner on a new natural gas pipeline into Eastern North Carolina?

The Energy Information Administration published a chart today that illustrates the rich shale-gas reserves the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would tap. Pay special attention to the vast Marcellus basin in green. Gas would also come from the much smaller Utica shale, in red.

Hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- and horizontal drilling explain the explosion in production from shale reserves. The controversial drilling techniques also raise questions about the potential for groundwater contamination, overuse of water supplies, wastewater disposal and the impact of fracking chemicals.

While the pipeline would deliver gas from several states away, the fracking debate is upon us too. Hearings began last month on North Carolina's version of fracking rules, and legislators decided that permits could be issued next spring.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

NC 10th nationally for 2Q clean energy jobs

North Carolina ranked 10th nationally for clean energy and transportation jobs in the second quarter, the business group Environmental Entrepreneurs said Thursday.

A report from the group says 272 new jobs, highest among states in the Southeast, were created by four announcements in the state.

The 12,500 jobs created nationally more than doubled the results from the first quarter, the group said. It attributed that to "new confidence about future clean energy growth" linked to the Environmental Protection Agency's carbon limits on power plants, announced in June.

Solar energy led all sectors with 5,300 U.S. jobs in the second quarter, followed by 2,700 in wind and major electric-car announcements by Tesla and General Motors.

Arizona led all states in new jobs, followed by California.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

EPA adds to NC's polluted-water list

The Environmental Protection Agency has added to North Carolina's list of polluted waterways, saying the state should have included 52 more bodies of water than it did.

States have to update the so-called 303(d) list of impaired waters every two years. But EPA objected to new methodology the state Environmental Management Commission adopted to update this year's list.

EPA added back to the state's list 52 river and stream segments that are impaired by metals, which can be toxic to fish and humans. The additions include Mecklenburg County's Irwin Creek, where the water contains lead and zinc.

EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young said adding to a state list is "not common, but it is not an unusual occurrence." EPA added one segment to North Carolina's 2012 list, state officials say.

The state environment commission last year raised the bar for proving that waterways are impaired.

Under the old standard, more than 10 percent of water samples had to show elevated levels of contaminants to be deemed impaired. The commission added a requirement that sample results be shown to be accurate at a 90 percent confidence level.

Establishing that confidence level meant analyzing more water samples. The N.C. Division of Water Resources moved some water bodies, for which it lacked the additional data, from "impaired" to "inconclusive."

The EPA objected, adding those waterways back to the list. It will take public comment on the additions through Sept. 12 -- email

EPA approved the state's listing of nearly 1,200 water bodies as impaired, and the removal of 227.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

NC Wildlife Federation announces award winners

The North Carolina Wildlife Federation has announced the winners of the annual Governor's Conservation Achievement Awards.

The federation has presented the awards since 1958. This year's awards will also induct environmental philanthropist Fred Stanback of Salisbury into the Conservation Hall of Fame. Stanback previously was named Conservationist of the Year in 2005.

Award winners will be honored at a Sept. 6 banquet in Cary:

  • Conservationist of the Year: Jean Beasley of Topsail Island for her work with sea turtles
  • Wildlife Conservationist: Robert Curry, chief of inland fisheries for the N.C. Wildlife Commission in Raleigh
  • Sportsman: Bryan Perry of Zebulon for his work with wild turkeys
  • Land Conservationist: Jamin Simmons, a farmer from Fairfield who embraces innovation
  • Water Conservationist: Roger Dick of Albemarle for his defense of rivers, lakes and public access
  • Environmental Educator: Shaefny Grays of Morrisville for a mentoring program at N.C. State University's College of Natural Resources
  • Conservation Communicator: Joe Albea of Winterville for his advocacy of wildlife on public television and other media
  • Youth Conservationist: Rachel Hopkins, a student in Raleigh who advocates for nongame species
  • Legislator: Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville for his attention to conservation
  • Municipal Conservationist: The City of Jacksonville for showcasing the New River
  • Wildlife Volunteer: John Spruill of Hampstead for fighting for wildlife, farms and wild lands in Eastern North Carolina
  • Hunter Safety Educator: Stony Rushing of Wingate for helping underserved hunters
  • NCWF Chapter: Habitat and Wildlife Keepers in Matthews, which turned its community green
  • NCWF Affiliate: North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry, whose volunteers process and donate venison
  • Natural Resources Scientist: Christopher Moorman of Raleigh for his work with wildlife-friendly forestry
  • Conservation Organization: Quality Deer Management Association for combining hunting with conservation
  • Business Conservationist: The Webb Farm of Ellerbe for work with quail hunting on a family farm
  • Wildlife Enforcement Officer: Master Officer Robert Newsome of Marion for merging law enforcement with public outreach
  • Marine Fisheries Enforcement Officer: Sgt. Carter Witten of Havelock for leading special enforcement projects in Eastern North Carolina.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Enviro groups unhappy with ash legislation

Several environmental groups wrote N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and House speaker Thom Tillis on Friday to complain about the coal ash legislation now before a legislative conference committee.

Legislation adopted by both chambers sets Duke Energy on a 15-year timeline to drain each of its 33 ash ponds in North Carolina. Differences between the two include House changes that allow extensions to the timeline and changes in how groundwater contamination is defined. Neither says whether consumers would pay to clean up the ponds.

House and Senate members say their work puts North Carolina at the forefront of states in dealing with ash and predict it will serve as a national cleanup model.

But the environmental groups wrote that "the current legislation inexplicably attempts to weaken our state's existing groundwater protection laws in favor of Duke Energy while allowing Duke to continue polluting state waters and putting our communities at risk."

The letter was signed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents groups in litigation against Duke, and representatives of 11 advocacy groups including Charlotte's Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.

It listed three "fundamental problems" with the legislation:

  • Ash is required to be removed from ponds at only four of Duke's 14 coal-fired power plants in the state. The groups say ash could stay in place, near water it could contaminate, at the remaining 10 plants.

  • House members inserted language they said was intended to prevent over-broad interpretations of a judge's order this year that state law requires "immediate action" to eliminate sources of groundwater pollution. Advocates say the change "is a clear effort to gut that requirement."

  • The bill allows Duke the option of bringing unpermitted leaks from its coal ash dams under existing permits. 

"In short, the bill as written actually weakens North Carolina's protections against coal ash pollution, which is alarming given the recent disaster at the Dan River facility and frequent assurances that this bill would provide strong protections for our citizens," the groups wrote. "It is not too late to make good on those promises."

Rep. Chuck McGrady and Sen. Tom Apodaca, both Republicans from Hendersonville, are the respective leads for ash legislation in the House and Senate and are expected to try to arrive at a compromise bill. No word when it will appear.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Duke Energy Carolinas slips in customer survey

Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves the Charlotte region, slipped in this year's J.D. Power and Associates customer-satisfaction survey of electric utility residential customers.

Duke Carolinas scored 641 on a 1,000-point scale, according to results out this week. That ranked it ninth-highest among 13 large utilities in the South.

In 2013 Duke had 656 points, ranking sixth-highest. In 2012 its 637 points ranked ninth.

A coal ash spill into the Dan River and subsequent federal grand jury investigation couldn't have helped Duke in the rankings, which are based in part on corporate citizenship.

But that wasn't the driving factor in the ratings drop, said J.D. Power official Jeff Conklin. More important, he said, were responses to survey questions about power quality and reliability, and about price. Duke Carolinas has raised rates three times since 2009.

Duke Energy Progress, the utility that serves Raleigh and the eastern Carolinas, did even worse in the survey. Its 637 points this year put it in 11th place in the region. That's a drop from 2012, before the merger of Duke Energy and Progress Energy, when the utility then known as Progress Energy Carolinas ranked sixth.

The survey measures customer satisfaction in six areas: power quality and reliability; price; billing and payment; corporate citizenship; communications and customer service.

Results nationwide showed improved ratings, J.D. Power said, due to improvements in corporate behavior and communicating with customers about outages. But electric utilities still lag in customer satisfaction compared to other home services such as cable TV and Internet providers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Public supports ban on coyote shooting in red wolf territory

Public comments favor, by a wide margin, a ban on hunting coyotes in red-wolf territory as the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission meets Thursday to discuss the issue.

In May a federal judge ordered the state to end its open season on coyotes in the five coastal counties -- Dare, Tyrell, Hyde, Beaufort and Washington -- roamed by the rare wolves, which resemble coyotes. Temporary rules the commission has proposed put the injunction in effect.

Rising numbers of gunshot wolves, often when they're mistaken for coyotes, threaten the species' survival on the Albemarle Peninsula of northeastern North Carolina, federal biologists say. Between 90 and 110 wolves live in the area.

Public comments the commission solicited found that 3,108 agree with the ban and just 69 disagree. That doesn't count form letters from members of the Southern Environmental Law Center, whose clients sued to stop coyote hunting, and Safari Club International.

More than 40 people submitted comments at a public hearing in Columbia on June 19.

The rules would take effect Aug. 1, but U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle has said he would revisit his injunction six months after he made the ruling.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Duke presses for answer on hydro license

Duke Energy is pressing federal regulators to issue a new hydroelectric license for the Catawba River that is now five years overdue and snarled in legal limbo.

The license gives Duke authority to operate its 13 dams on the Catawba in both Carolinas. The original 50-year license expired in 2008.

Environmentalists challenged the renewal terms, saying Duke's dams would hurt the recovery of endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon. That issue appears to have been resolved last year when a federal agency agreed the dams wouldn't threaten the survival of the fish.

South Carolina has posed a thornier challenge. Duke can renew its federal license only after the state agrees that the dams won't hurt the Catawba's water quality.

South Carolina initially refused to make that finding amid the turmoil of a U.S. Supreme Court case, later settled, between the two states over rights to the river.

Now before South Carolina's Supreme Court is whether the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control suspended a 180-day deadline to act on the water-quality certification.

This week Duke asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ignore the court case, saying it could take years to resolve. Duke asked FERC to rule that South Carolina has waived its right to grant or deny the water certification.

"The commission has a federal mandate to act now and it has everything it needs to do so," Duke wrote. "... Every licensee and every license application deserves due process and continued delays are not warranted for this project."

Approval will unleash millions of dollars in recreational improvements and land conservation Duke promised in negotiating the license terms.

Silence so far from FERC.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Are insect-ravaged hemlocks at a tipping point?

A Japanese insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid has devastated Southern Appalachian hemlock forests, but apparently not to the degree expected, new research shows.

The U.S. Forest Service released a study Wednesday that says the majestic trees might still be growing fast enough in the East to offset the insect's damage.

The adelgid was first spotted in Virginia in the 1950s. By 1980, damage had begun in the hemlock's Appalachian range running from northern Georgia to Canada. Trees were hit hardest in the South, where mild winters don't help limit the insect's spread.

Lead author Talbot Trotter, an ecologist at the service's Northern Research Station in Pennsylvania, says the study might have captured a tipping point between hemlock losses and increases due to forest regrowth. The study used forest data only through 2007.

"Repeating this analysis as new (forest) data becomes available may show if we are beyond a tipping point and are now losing hemlock," he said.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gas prices to drop, solar to rise, feds say

The Energy Information Administration's new short-term energy outlook forecasts some interesting trends through 2015. Some bullet points from administrator Adam Sieminski:

-- Gasoline prices are expected to trend downward over the next two years, averaging $3.46 per gallon in 2014 and $3.39 per gallon in 2015, as U.S. crude oil production grows and crude prices fall.

-- U.S. crude oil production could set a record in 2015 with the highest output since 1972. Production is projected to rise by 1 million barrels a day this year to 8.5 million barrels, and then rise to 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015. Imports would drop to 24 percent of total liquid fuels consumption, the lowest level since 1970.

-- Onshore natural gas production will continue increasing over the next two years, with the Marcellus Shale of eastern North America offsetting declines in the Gulf of Mexico.

 -- Average household electricity use is expected to decline 1.1 percent this year and another 0.4 percent in 2015 due to improved appliance and lighting efficiency. Dropping household use will be offset by increased demand from industries.

-- U.S. wind power capacity is forecast to increase 8.8 percent this year and 15 percent in 2015. But utility-scale solar capacity is expected to zoom up 40 percent between now and the end of 2015.