State orders owner of lined coal ash landfill to assess contamination

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By Greg Barnes

For months, environmentalists have said they are concerned that a new lined coal ash landfill in Chatham County may be leaking.

Now, it appears that the state Department of Environmental Quality shares the same concerns.

In a letter dated Friday, the DEQ ordered Charah Inc., the company that owns the coal ash site in Moncure, to hire a state-licensed geologist and submit a groundwater and surface water assessment plan within 60 days. The letter says the assessment could lead to corrective action based on the findings.

According to the letter, a review of data since groundwater monitoring began in August 2015 at what is known as the Brickhaven No. 2 Mine has found barium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, total dissolved solids and vanadium at concentrations greater than state standards.

The letter says a review of data for surface water at the Brickhaven site indicates state standards have been exceeded for arsenic, cobalt, copper, lead, total dissolved solids and zinc.

Long-term exposure to many of the toxins in coal ash can cause cancer and/or damage the brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and stomach.

The DEQ’s letter was addressed to Norman Divers, Charah’s environmental manager, who could not be reached for comment.

Laura Leonard, a spokeswoman for the DEQ, said the coal ash elements that exceed state standards at the landfill could be naturally occurring, and further assessment and investigation is needed.

Speedy process

Therese Vick, a community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, has her suspicions. Blue Ridge has been monitoring the Brickhaven site even before it started accepting coal ash from Duke Energy in 2015. Blue Ridge was among the groups that filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block a permit for the landfill.

That lawsuit is still pending.

Vick said the permit was issued in less than seven months from the time it was requested. Normally, she said, it takes at least a year or two to obtain a permit.

“It’s all political,” she said. “It really is.”

diagram of coal ash basin without a lined pit
A coal ash landfill without the soil lining.
diagram of a lined coal ash pit
This is the fully lined version of a landfill, which also feature wells in order to monitor the the quality of the nearby water. At the Moncure site, independent testing found that some chemicals might be leaching into the soil beyond the landfill site. Images courtesy: Duke Energy

Vick acknowledged that the DEQ’s letter to Charah doesn’t mean the almost 4-year-old Brickhaven landfill is leaking.

“It at least confirms that my worrying concern wasn’t misplaced,” she said.

Charah developed and owns the Brickhaven site, which once was used to mine clay. Duke Energy has sent tons of its coal ash to the site after the power company came under fire after about 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a pit into the Dan River near Eden in February 2014. Afterward, the power company agreed to remove coal ash —  the residue left after coal is burned to generate energy — from some of its pits to lined landfills. Most of the ash at the Brickhaven site came from pits at Duke’s Riverbend plant near Charlotte and from its Sutton plant near Wilmington.

Competing reports

Early last year, HDR Engineering Inc. of The Carolinas released an annual groundwater report for the Brickhaven site. The company, employed by Charah at least since Brickhaven opened, concluded that levels of contaminants exceeding state standards were naturally occurring and not the result of a leaking landfill.

About the same time, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League hired another company, Groundwater Management Associates Inc. of Greenville, to conduct its own testing. That company could not conclude whether the contamination was the result of a leaking landfill or if it was naturally occurring.

The GMA summary report to Blue Ridge is dated May 2018. It names many toxins found to have statistically significant increases that were not listed in the DEQ’s letter to Charah.

“Closer examination of (coal ash) waste handling and stormwater management from the Brickhaven facility would be needed to better ascertain if the landfill facility is a likely source of contaminants entering the surface water system surrounding the Facility,” the GMA report concluded.

The company did find that “the groundwater detection monitoring system is inadequate to monitor for possible impacts to the groundwater system associated with the landfill.”

Groundwater Management Associates recommended that additional monitoring wells be installed “within the landfill area to characterize the head and water quality directly beneath the landfill.”

The company also said groundwater flow predictions in the HDR monitoring reports are based “upon a flawed representation of how groundwater flows.”

In a news release Monday, Judy Hogan, President of  a Blue Ridge chapter called Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump, issued a statement saying the organization welcomes the DEQ’s letter to Charah asking for a detailed assessment of the Brickhaven site.

“We know from the March 2019 UNC-CH research study of wells in Chatham County that more than half of them show too much Chromium six and Vanadium, both cancer-causing, to be safe for human consumption,” Hogan wrote. “We are glad that the DEQ is now paying attention publicly to the problems we’ve known about at Brickhaven for some time.”

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