SHERRILLS FORD – They weren’t going to leave without having their say.
Nearly 500 residents of the Lake Norman area gathered at Sherrills Ford Elementary School Thursday, Jan. 17, for an information session hosted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
At least that’s how the state officials thought things were going to work.
DEQ scheduled the meeting ahead of a decision on what Duke Energy will be required to do with nearly 17 million tons of coal ash sitting in an unlined, 394-acre basin at Marshall Steam Station near Lake Norman. Duke has presented DEQ with three possible solutions: excavation, “capping” the coal ash where it is, or a combination of the two.
But what was supposed to be a one-sided session – with a number of booths set up to address the various aspects of Duke’s proposed solutions – quickly turned into a question-and-answer forum when the audience demanded to be heard.
Those packed inside the school gymnasium voiced near-unanimous support for excavation, which would involve removing all of Marshall’s coal ash and transferring it to a lined ladndfill at another location.
Duke says that digging up the coal ash would cost more than $1 billion, and that transporting that ash to another location, truckload by truckload, would take 32 years.
Duke already has been ordered to excavate the coal ash at eight of its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, as well as from all of its South Carolina locations where coal ash is stored. When pressed for an answer about why Duke hasn’t yet been required to excavate its remaining North Carolina sites, DEQ officials replied that they’re simply following the process as mandated by state law.
While Duke has received clearance from the N.C. Utilities Commission to pass coal-ash cleanup costs to its customers through rate increases, the company would prefer the cheaper option of keeping the ash where it is, draining the basin of all water and capping the stored material with a waterproof cover.
In addition to being significantly cheaper, at an estimated cost of $207 million, according to Duke, the capping option could be completed in roughly half the time it would take to completely remove the ash.
The third, “hybrid” option would also result in the coal ash remaining on-site, although the ash buried closest to Lake Norman would be dug up and and moved further away. That option would come with a price tag roughly twice of what it would take to simply cover the coal ash, while the process could be completed in essentially the same amount of time.
The audience, however, responded to any mention of leaving the coal ash on-site at Marshall with vehement opposition. Many expressed concern over possible health risks posed by the ash and its proximity to the lake. They urged DEQ to protect the state’s natural resources and the health of its people.
N.C. Rep. John Fraley and N.C Sen. Vickie Sawyer, who represent Iredell County, promised to continue working toward a solution.
“When all of the information started coming forth, a group of all of your locally elected officials that includes Sen. Sawyer and myself, (Mooresville) Mayor (Miles) Atkins and the Iredell County commissioners, as well as the Iredell Health Department, came together to work on this issue,” Fraley said. “There will be information that comes out within the next couple of weeks about some testing that Virginia Tech is going to be doing throughout Iredell County on well water and groundwater.”
The audience initially appeared irritated by the perceived absence of elected official in attendance, but offered applause after the legislators stepped forward to take the microphone. Many wanted a Duke official on hand to answer questions, but DEQ didn’t invite the company.