Two years after Dan River disaster Duke Energy plans for massive coal ash landfill

By: - July 28, 2016 3:21 pm
Dan River (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

At 12 stories, the proposed coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Plant in Eden would loom taller than any building in this small town.

At 23 acres, the landfill would consume the same amount of space as 17 Morehead High School football fields.

When full, the landfill would hold 2.1 million cubic yards of coal ash from the Dan River plant. That amount would pack, floor-to-ceiling, half of Eden’s Walmart Supercenter, which lies just three-quarters of a mile away from the site.

Environmental advocates have long warned state regulators about the hazards of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, but Eden is the place where the problem literally surfaced. In February 2014, a coal ash pond at Dan River plant ruptured, sending 39,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the river. At least 70 miles of the waterway was damaged, including the river bottom.

Now, more than two years later, the energy company is moving ash from all of its ponds at seven of its 14 plants and into lined and capped landfills, as required by state law, and under legal pressure from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The details of the landfill plan were unveiled last night, at a public information session in Eden, sponsored by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Larry Frost, an environmental engineer with DEQ’s waste management division, laid out the landfill plan, which, if state regulators grant the permit, will contain three separate cells of ash.

First, about half of the ash would be excavated from the pond and “decanted,” meaning the liquid would be poured off, leaving dry or damp ash. Then a giant lined gorge in the ground would hold a parfait of ash, polyethylene, and clay.

The landfill would be lined first with 12 inches of dirt, and on top of that, by a synthetic clay liner,  a membrane high-density polyethylene, which feels like thick vinyl, a leakage detection layer, more membrane and a draining layer, the ash, and then a cap.

Frost said the liners should last 300 years.

When the landfill is finished, monitoring wells will be installed on its perimeter to detect any contaminants in groundwater. Other wells will be monitor water quality in the Dan River and two nearby tributaries.

Water from the ash in the landfill — known as leachate — would be captured in nearby tanks, treated, and then discharged to the wastewater treatment plant. (Untreated leachate can contain toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium and selenium, which have contaminated drinking water wells near several unlined coal ash ponds owned by Duke Energy in North Carolina.)

Eden Mayor Wayne Tuggle told NCPW that the city’s wastewater treatment plant can handle the removal of contaminants from the pre-treated leachate. He said that the town’s drinking water has not been contaminated by the 2014 spill, and that “no one is on well water within the Eden city limits.”


On this broiling summer day, the Dan River is not so much running as moseying toward Virginia. In the distance, four people are swimming downstream of the Duke Energy plant, near Draper Landing. Mayor Tuggle told NCPW the “river has rebounded,” but that’s not entirely true.

Image: Google maps

While the EPA and DEQ have emphasized swimming in the Dan River isn’t hazardous, ash still lingers on the river bottom. And there it will stay, because to remove it would further harm endangered species and other river dwellers. The ash, and other contaminants unrelated to the spill, have prompted state regulators to advise people not to eat fish from the river.

The Dan River is accustomed to such assaults. Fieldcrest Mills used to pump its dyes into the river, Mayor Tuggle said, “and it turned green and pink.”

In the northside of the river is a combination of new, middle-class homes, 1950s ranch houses and smaller, working-class homes; to the south, several longstanding farms are mixed in. As part of the landfill plan, DEQ is conducting an environmental justice analysis to determine if minority- or low-income neighborhoods with one mile of the Duke Energy property line could be affected.

Eden is largely a white city —68 percent — but with the demise of the textile industry, it does face economic challenges. Eden’s median household income, according to census figures, is $31,440 a year, much less than the state average of $46,000.

And within a mile of the Duke property, there are at least three retirement communities two of them for low-income seniors.

While the state review’s the proposed permit, Duke is shipping another 1.2 million tons of ash — in railcars, each carrying 100 tons — to a private landfill in Jetersville, Virginia, an unincorporated area about 47 miles southwest of Richmond.

The company has not yet estimated the cost of the project, said Jeff Brooks, spokesman for Duke Energy. The draft permit requires Duke to begin building the landfill within 18 months of receiving approval; all coal ash must be removed from the ponds by Dec. 31, 2019.

Frank Holleman is one of the Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys working on the coal ash issue. He called the landfill a “positive development.”

“We need to get it away from the river, get it out of the pits and get it out of groundwater,” he added. But he cautioned that Duke still have ash ponds at seven other plants that won’t be cleaned up to the Dan River landfill standards.

“The need to do this at other sites,” Holleman said. “It’s a shame that’s not being done.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.