July 27, 2016. Misunderstanding history makes it more likely the same mistakes will be made again. In that spirit, a fact-check of recent DEQ statements1 about the history of coal ash regulation in North Carolina:
“In 2007, a previous administration changed landfill laws and specifically exempted coal-ash ponds from many environmental requirements.”
The statement seems to be referring to the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007 which amended landfill siting and construction standards. Two provisions related to coal ash landfills, but nothing in the law directly addressed coal ash ponds. Coal ash was not the main focus of the 2007 law, which responded to several controversial applications to construct new landfills for household waste and construction debris. As a result, the law focused on concerns specific to those proposals — impacts on wildlife refuges and parks; the size and height of waste disposal areas; separation from groundwater; and guarantees the landfill owner could pay for environmental remediation.
The first of two provisions in the 2007 law affecting coal ash allowed utilities to construct a lined coal ash landfill on top of an old coal ash disposal site under specific standards. The second provision exempted coal ash landfills on the site of a coal-fired power plant from some of the new landfill siting requirements. Coal ash landfills located on power plant sites continued to be regulated as industrial landfills under standards that required liners; groundwater monitoring; and setbacks from waters and wetlands. The Department of Environment of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) did not request either coal ash provision.
“In 2009, the state exempted Duke Energy from having to show that its coal-ash ponds were structurally sound. If that information had been required, the corroded pipe under the Dan River coal ash pond might have been found and the spill avoided.”
In 2009, the General Assembly actually repealed a state Dam Safety Act exemption for coal ash impoundments. See Session Law 2009-390. Before 2009, coal ash ponds had been entirely exempt from the dam safety law. Repeal of the exemption made coal ash impoundments subject to the dam safety law for the first time — requiring compliance with dam safety standards; regular state inspections; and DENR review/approval of plans for expansion or repair.
DEQ’s statement may be focused on language in the 2009 legislation that allowed existing coal ash impoundments to “… be deemed to have received all of the necessary approvals from [DENR] and the Commission for Dam Safety for normal operation and maintenance”. In effect, the law allowed impoundments built before repeal of the exemption to continue to operate as if the state had permitted the original construction. Those impoundments, however, would be inspected going forward and required to comply with dam safety orders to address structural deficiencies. On balance, the 2009 legislation greatly increased rather than diminished state oversight of coal ash impoundments under the Dam Safety Act.
The Dam Safety Act amendments did not cause state and federal regulators to miss critical information about the Dan River stormwater pipe that later ruptured. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DENR dam safety staff became aware of the stormwater pipes at the Dan River impoundment in 2009-2010. Before inspecting N.C. impoundments as part of the federal response to the TVA coal ash disaster, EPA asked electric utilities to provide information on structural conditions at each impoundment site in the state. Maps of the Dan River site that Duke Energy provided to state and federal inspectors incorrectly identified the stormwater pipes as concrete rather than corrugated metal. The error meant state and federal inspectors did not have complete and accurate information as background for the inspections, but not because the 2009 law allowed electric utilities to shield information about the impoundments — it didn’t.
Note: It later became clear that internal Duke Energy inspection reports had flagged the metal pipes at Dan River for attention as early as the 1980s. In accepting a plea deal to a large federal penalty for the Dan River spill, Duke Energy acknowledged a pattern of neglect that included failure to take the advice of its own engineers in 2011 and 2012 to do camera inspections of the stormwater pipes.
“In 2010 federal regulators required leaks from all coal ash ponds to be evaluated. No action was taken in North Carolina for three years.”
By 2010, EPA had taken several steps to get a better handle on coal ash impoundments. In 2009, EPA launched the nationwide effort to assess the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments. Based on information provided by the electric utilities, EPA did on-site inspections of eight higher risk N.C. impoundment sites in 2009-2010 including the Dan River facility. Inspectors from the state’s water quality, waste management and dam safety programs accompanied EPA on most of those inspections. Also in 2009-2010, state dam safety inspectors did an initial dam safety inspection of every coal ash impoundment as the first step in bringing those impoundments under the Dam Safety Act.
On a different track, EPA provided new guidance to states on permitting discharges from coal ash impoundments under the Clean Water Act ; the new guidance recognized that discharges could result from seeps and leaks through impoundment walls. In 2010-2012, the state water quality program began increasing groundwater monitoring requirements for coal ash ponds and revising stormwater permits for impoundment sites. It may be that state programs gave higher priority to structural impoundment problems, groundwater contamination and stormwater permitting in 2010-2012 and lower priority to addressing the water quality impacts of leaks. It is difficult to know without more information.
“In 2011 the state gave Duke Energy approval to use Sutton lake, a recreational area in Wilmington, as a dumping ground for coal ash.”
Sutton Lake has not been used for coal ash disposal. Coal ash from the Sutton Power Plant went into one of two coal ash impoundments; outlets release water from the impoundments to Sutton Lake. Another outlet releases water from Sutton Lake to the Cape Fear River. The earliest Clean Water Act permit for the Sutton Plant accessible on the DEQ website (from 1996) treated the outlet to the Cape Fear River as the permitted discharge point and applied effluent standards there. Although the permit also put water quality limits on discharges from the coal ash impoundments to Sutton Lake, the lake was regulated as a cooling pond — part of the wastewater treatment system — rather than as “waters of the State” protected under the Clean Water Act. Every renewal of the 5-year Clean Water Act permit from 1996 through 2011 continued that approach. Apparently water quality staff revisited the question of whether Sutton Lake should be treated as a cooling pond or as “waters of the State” in 2011, but decided to maintain the approach used in earlier permit renewals. In 2014, the department (now the Department of Environmental Quality) looked at the issue again and concluded — correctly, I think — that the permit should be modified to treat Sutton Lake as “waters of the State” and put effluent limits on discharges to the lake. It isn’t clear why the water quality program and the Environmental Management Commission reached a different conclusion in issuing and renewing earlier permits.
“For many years Duke Energy monitored the water under its ponds and found hundreds of samples that did not meet groundwater standards. Again, no action was taken. In fact, the prior administration created a policy instructing regulators not to fine Duke if the company said it would correct the problem.”
The state water quality program first began requiring comprehensive groundwater monitoring for coal ash constituents in 2009-2010, imposing new groundwater monitoring conditions as Clean Water Act discharge permits for the impoundments came up for renewal. The new conditions covered key contaminants associated with coal ash and required groundwater monitoring to be done under a state-approved plan to insure monitoring wells would be appropriately placed to detect violations. Given the time required to install monitoring wells and collect a full cycle of monitoring results, little data showing a groundwater standard violation related to coal ash would have been available before 2010. None of the groundwater violations cited in DEQ’s 2014 enforcement action concerning the Sutton Power Plant predate 2009; most come from the period between 2010 and 2014.
Before 2009-2010, most of the state’s coal ash impoundments operated without significant groundwater monitoring for decades. Electric utilities built many of the impoundments in the 1960s and 1970s before any environmental regulations applied. In the late 1970s, the state began issuing federal Clean Water Act permits for discharges from the impoundments to rivers, lakes and streams. Environmental regulation focused on the quality of water discharged from the upper layers of the ash ponds to surface waters rather than the coal ash itself. In the 1980s-1990s, the state began putting groundwater monitoring conditions on the discharge permits, but the monitoring focused on very basic parameters. For the Sutton Plant, those parameters were: water level, pH, chlorides, iron, arsenic, selenium and total suspended solids. Groundwater concerns had not yet focused on contaminants specifically associated with coal ash.
Groundwater concerns increased after 2000 as EPA continued to lay the groundwork for a federal coal ash disposal rule. In 2006, electric utilities began voluntarily monitoring for contaminants associated with coal ash in the face of pressure from environmental organizations and expected federal rulemaking. Most of the data from the voluntary monitoring could not be used in state enforcement actions. Under state groundwater rules, a violation exists only if the impoundment causes an exceedence of groundwater standards at or beyond a compliance boundary around the pond. (For most N.C. impoundments, the compliance boundary is set 500 feet from the edge of the pond.) Wells used by the utilities for the voluntary groundwater monitoring had not been placed to document groundwater standard violations at the compliance boundary. But based on the voluntary monitoring results, the state water quality program put broader groundwater monitoring conditions on impoundment permits and required monitoring to be done under a state-approved well-siting plan to insure the data could be used for future enforcement.
The enforcement policy mentioned in the DEQ statement refers to 2010 groundwater enforcement guidance developed by water quality staff. Since the expanded groundwater monitoring requirements applied to facilities that had operated for many years without monitoring, the water quality program developed a policy that put the enforcement emphasis on remediation of contamination rather than assessment of penalties for activities that had been unregulated or lightly regulated for much of the facility’s history.
What the fact-checked history suggests:
It is difficult to contain environmental impacts 20 to 40 years after the fact. Both state and federal regulators struggled to understand and address problems associated with a method of coal ash disposal electric utilities had already invested in and become reliant on by the time environmental impacts became a concern.
The basic arc of state and federal regulation looks like this: In the 1970s, state and federal regulators focused on discharges from existing coal ash ponds to surface waters. There was a quiet period between issuance of the first Clean Water Act discharge permits for coal ash impoundments in the late 1970s through the 1990s. Regulators assumed the electric utilities were maintaining the impoundments properly and indicators of groundwater contamination associated with coal ash had not reached critical mass. EPA began working on a federal coal ash disposal rule in the late 1990s, but abandoned the proposed rule in 2000 in the face of strong political opposition. Between 2000 and 2008, troubling data on groundwater and surface water pollution associated with coal ash ponds accumulated and the 2008 TVA spill undermined confidence in the electric utilities’ maintenance of impoundments. Both state and federal regulatory efforts accelerated in 2008-2009, leading to state permitting changes and renewed efforts to adopt a federal coal ash disposal rule. (EPA finalized the federal rule in 2015.)
The issues surrounding coal ash have not been the responsibility of any one administration or a single branch of government. The history spans multiple governors of both political parties and legislative as well as executive action. Coal ash provisions in the 2007 Solid Waste Management Act came out of direct negotiation between the electric utilities and legislators. In 2009, the General Assembly repealed the Dam Safety Act exemption for coal ash impoundments, but did not move a bill to set comprehensive state standards for coal ash disposal out of committee.
Leaps in state law on coal ash management followed specific crises — the coal ash impoundment exemption from the Dam Safety Act survived until the 2008 TVA spill put a spotlight on poor maintenance. In 2009, the General Assembly had no interest in moving comprehensive coal ash disposal legislation; that only changed after the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill .
By 2009, accumulating evidence of groundwater contamination and other water quality concerns led the state water quality program to use existing permitting authority to require more groundwater monitoring around coal ash impoundments and increase stormwater requirements. Those efforts to use existing permitting tools more effectively laid the foundation for later groundwater enforcement actions.
1 The statements in bold appeared in a recent letter by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder to the Raleigh News and Observer.