Monday, March 24, 2014

Despite questions, Charlotte to study coal ash at airport

The Charlotte City Council was skeptical Monday about Duke Energy’s plant to move 4 million tons of coal ash to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but members voted unanimously for the city to further study the issue.

Duke and Charah Inc. have proposed moving the ash from unlined ponds near Mountain Island Lake to the airport, where it could be used as fill material, possibly for a new runway. Duke said the ash would be wrapped inside a liner like a “coal ash burrito,” which would protect groundwater, the company said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city would only strike a deal with Duke if it’s environmentally safe and if it makes sense financially for the airport.

Mountain Island Lake – which is close to the ash ponds today – is the city’s drinking water source. Council members said the unlined ponds are a problem, but some were skittish about bringing so much toxic material into the city.

They raised questions about whether groundwater could be harmed and the environmental impact of more than 160,000 truck trips to move the ash.

But some environmentalists said Monday they felt it could be a good solution to a long-term festering problem. Charah and Duke have shifted ash to Asheville Regional Airport, where they started burying it almost seven years ago.

“Almost everything is better than storing the ash in an unlined lagoon next to your drinking water,” said Rick Gaskins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.

“We can’t speak for all of the environmental groups,” he said. “But we will offer our qualified support for looking into this. It all depends on the details.”

Michael Barnes, the mayor pro tem, questioned Duke and Charah about the possible impact to drinking water. Duke and Charah said the lining would seal in the ash, but that pipes would carry any water under the site into the city’s sewer system.

“You will be introducing all of the poisons and hazardous materials ...into our sewer system?” Barnes said.

Barry Gullet, director of Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities, said other utilities have had similar arrangements with treating wastewater from coal ash ponds. He said CMU would study the issue.

Council members Ed Driggs and Al Austin asked about negative impacts of moving the ash. Charah said one of its trucks can carry between 18 and 25 tons of ash. Considering the company is planning to move 4 million tons, that could be 160,000 to more than 222,000 truck trips.

Charah said it works to make sure the ash is covered as it is being moved. It also said it works to clean its trucks to minimize dust.

Gaskins said dust will be a problem.

“Charah may have done a great job (moving ash in Asheville),” he said. “But you will have people coming to council meetings saying they have dust on their car.”

Council member David Howard wondered whether Charah’s system for containing the ash – which include six feet of dirt and a liner – would be able to withstand the impact of large jets at one of the world’s busiest airports.

Gaskins said that’s a valid concern.

“What is the impact of having 747s land on this?” he said. “What will that do to the liner?”

He also said it’s critical for Duke and Charah to fully clean the ponds, not just remove the ash.

City staff members and Duke had been discussing for months whether moving the coal ash to the airport would be beneficial.

Council members voted after the presentation for city staff to continue exploring the issue, a process that should take 60 days.

It’s uncertain if the airport needs a fourth parallel runway, though one has long been planned. The airport is undertaking a capacity study to see if the runway is needed.

Charlotte Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi said the airport might not even build a runway on the fill.

“There is no designated project for the fill,” Yi said. “That may or may not be the case.”

Howard said he wasn’t interested in the project “if it won’t save us money.”