Do you live near a coal ash disposal site?

By: - September 4, 2018 1:26 pm
The purple diamonds signify areas in northeastern North Carolina where coal ash has been used for structural fill and/or beneficial reuse. There are at least 90 such areas and projects in North Carolina. However, it’s difficult to know the precise number because in the 1950s and 1960s, when regulations were weaker or non-existent, coal ash was dumped without monitoring or oversight. (Map: NC DEQ)

Note: Scroll to the bottom of the story to view a table listing all of the known coal combustion residual structural fill projects in the state, listed by county. This list does not include coal ash landfills designed to merely store the material.

The Family Dollar store on East Second Street in downtown Weldon is a convenient spot for kayakers to grab a bottle of water and a bag of snacks before heading to the Roanoke River just three blocks away. But in late 2009 and early 2010, state environmental inspectors learned that coal ash from Roanoke Valley Energy, whose material three years earlier had been used to build the parking lot, was seen on the west side of the property.

Car traffic had eroded the dirt — too little dirt to actually seal the ash, state regulators speculated — and potentially exposed the public and the environment to toxic materials, such as arsenic, lead, radium and cadmium. More than 10,000 cubic yards of ash were used for the project, although only a small portion was exposed.

Last week the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) unveiled a new interactive mapping tool that shows the locations of more than a dozen classifications of disposal sites, including old dumps, underground storage tanks and coal combustion byproduct landfills. The icons then link to documents about a particular site. Viewers can also enter the data, such as the address, into the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool to determine if the sites are near low-income areas or communities of color. For example, the residents within a mile and a half of the Family Dollar store in Weldon are nearly three-quarters Black.

The release of the mapping tool, particularly for coal combustion byproduct landfills, is important now because the Trump administration has weakened federal coal ash disposal rules, including those governing structural fill and beneficial reuse. States now have the latitude to set their own rules, as long as they are not less stringent than the EPA.

“A state permitting program is not acceptable if it’s simply a stand-in for a federal CCR rule,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “It must be stronger, and have a wider range of protections. It must have a strong focus on protecting vulnerable communities, not on saving money for industry. Duke Energy must be required to remove coal ash from every unlined basin, so that the ash will be quickly and permanently isolated from both surface and ground water. The ‘Unifying Principles’ for the Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash call for no dumping of any coal ash in other communities and no capping in place.”

DEQ is hosting four public hearings over the next month to take comment on its proposed rules. Those comments can now be informed by a history, albeit an incomplete one, of many coal ash reuse sites in the state.


Duke Energy is a main generator of coal ash in North Carolina, but there are nearly a half-dozen more, including Cogentrix, Roanoke Valley Energy, DuPont and Weyerhauser. These companies often get rid of their coal ash byproducts, also known as residuals, by shipping it to contractors that then mix it with concrete or other materials to build roads, tarmacs and parking lots. As long as the ash and its toxic compounds remain sealed in these materials, they are relatively safe, especially compared to leaving the material in open pits or even lined landfills.

But when engineers or property owners get sloppy, the benefits of encasing the coal ash in concrete are erased.

At the JS Turner Lumber Yard, which is down the street from the Family Dollar in Weldon, coal ash had been misapplied for more than 10 years. (In 1999, Hurricane Floyd interrupted the project, which was to use coal ash to raise the lumber drying yard; construction resumed afterward.)

In 2001, state inspectors saw that some of the 250,000 cubic yards of coal ash had been dumped outside of approved areas, including within two feet of the seasonal high water table. If the ash had become mixed with groundwater, the toxic material could have then traveled to rivers and streams, or depending on conditions, even drinking water wells.

In late 2007, household trash, furniture, mattresses, metal, plastic, wood had been dumped atop a coal ash site near the Turner sawmill, according to a DEQ warning letter.

Inspection reports filed nearly five years later show that “there does not appear to have been any work done to bring the site into compliance. Weeds and native grasses are growing up on the exposed coal ash. Coal ash had also washed down to the railroad tracks and inspectors also saw material in the road.” The status of the site: Unresolved. “Mr. Turner states he does not have money to make the corrections.”

In 1997, a neighbor of a coal ash structural fill site near Battleboro in Nash County called state inspectors to complain fly ash was being blown onto her house. The woman, Deborah Amato, told investigators that she suffered from “swollen lymph nodes, gastro intestinal problems, and fatigue” and that she believes the “exposure to the blown fly ash intensifies her health problems.”

Environmental inspectors went to the Reuse Techonology /RT Soil Sciences site and found what appeared to be coal ash dust inside her home. The fly ash had been deposited less than 25 feet — a little longer than two basketball goals lying on their sides — from her property. The ash was also closer than 50 feet to Swift Creek, a major tributary of the Tar River. Cogentrix was the source of the ash.

More recently, in 2015, DEQ cited Duke Energy and engineering firm Charah for violations related to erosion at a deposit site at the Asheville Regional Airport. Rain had washed away a dirt layer, exposing the ash. The material was being used to expand airport facilities, including taxiways and road bedding.

State law requires owners of land where more than 1,000 cubic yards of coal ash has been disposed to file documents with the respective county’s register of deeds. The records are supposed to show a “plat map” or legal description of where the ash was used or buried. Family Dollar’s owners — at that time, Eastern Pride out of Wilson — didn’t file those records. Nor did Eastern Pride notify state regulators that it had completed the project, which then triggers an inspection.

But there is no notification requirement if the amount of ash is less than 1,000 cubic yards. Nor do state records document all of the old “legacy” sites — coal ash dumps from the 1950s, for example — when such activity was virtually unregulated. At a recent hearing in Garysburg about a proposed coal ash landfill to be operated by VistaGreen, one man brought an Mt. Olive pickle jar that  contained coal ash, he told Northampton County commissioners. (He had inscribed a skull and crossbones on the lid.) He had collected the gray material, he said, from an area near a road.

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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.