The Buck Steam Station in Rowan County began operating on the edge of the Yadkin River in 1926. It was Duke Power’s first large-scale plant, and remained its oldest until it closed in April 2013. In the early years, employees and their families lived in a “mill village” close to the plant. Old timers told of the tremendous soot which emanated from the plant’s smoke stacks, blackening laundry hung outside to dry and creating dense smog. As cars became readily available and roads became more drivable, plant employees moved away from the plant. Over the years, Duke Power expanded the plant (the last two coal-fired units began operating in 1953), and gradually improved its emissions.
A new natural gas fired combined cycle station began operating in November 2011. This new plant was incentivized by Rowan County with $7.2 million in tax rebates, and paid for by rate hikes to consumers.
With the new plant in operation, and partially to appease concerns about permitting expansion at the Cliffside plant, Duke began closing the remaining coal-fired units. Two units had been retired in 1979. Two more were retired in May 2011, and 3 smaller natural gas-fired units in October 2012. The last two units were shut down in April 2013, two years ahead of schedule, much to the relief of those concerned about Rowan County’s poor air quality, which had been the 16th worst in the nation not many years ago.
As of 2002 (the most recent year for which data is available), Duke Energy and CP&L (now Duke Energy Progress) plants in North Carolina held 14 of the top 30 places in the state of North Carolina for total environmental releases, including the top 4 rankings on Scorecard.goodguide.com. The Buck Steam Station ranked 19th worst in the state.
As early as February 2008 a Charlotte Observer article (“Closer Scrutiny for Duke’s Coal Ash”, Bruce Henderson) reported that Duke’s voluntary monitoring of groundwater near ash ponds, not subject to state fines, showed high boron readings at the Buck plant.
Coal Ash Ponds
Three unlined coal ash ponds at the Buck plant cover a total of 119 acres and contain five million pounds of coal ash. The primary coal ash basin was constructed in 1983; the other two are older. In December 2009 the three Buck Steam Station coal ash ponds were listed on the EPA’s list of “potentially highly hazardous” list of 44 ash ponds in 26 communities and 10 states. The sites were classified as potentially highly hazardous because they are near where people live, and because there would be a possibility of loss of human life if a significant dam failure occurred. Coal ash typically contains a host of heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead and mercury, as well as boron. Duke Energy no longer uses these coal ash ponds, but no plans have been made to do anything other than leave them where they are.
Coal Ash Pond Spills
#1. Kingston TN, 2008, 1.1 billion gallons. This disastrous spill temporarily raised public awareness about the dangers of coal ash ponds. Clean up is still going on.
#2. Martin County KY, 2000, 306,000,000 gallons.
#3. Buffalo Creek WV, 1972, 132,000,000 gallons.
#4. Dan River NC, 2014, 18,480,000 gallons. (82,000 tons of coal ash plus 17 million gallons of water. If this spill would fill 28 Olympic-sized swimming pools, as has been reported, the spill comprised 18,480,000 gallons. That’s approximately 1.68% of the Kingston spill.)
The recent Dan River spill, as was the case with the 2008 Kingston spill, has again raised public awareness about the dangers of coal ash spills. The magnitude of the Dan River spill has been sensationalized. The conversation we should be having is that if a relatively minor spill such as the recent one on the Dan River can be this devastating – coal ash has been found covering the river bottom for 70 miles downstream – what would happen if another catastrophic dam breach occurred in our state? DENR has said that the real impact to the environment is not the short term, but the long term effects. If not cleaned up (and it’s doubtful if all of it could ever be cleaned up), the coal ash will remain in the river for decades, poisoning the water and all it sustains, becoming resuspended with each influx of melting snow or heavy rain.
The time has come to pay attention to the Buck Coal Ash Ponds
All the previous coal ash spills have been accidents. They were not intentional or predicted. Those in North Carolina are inspected annually, and most coal ash ponds probably will never have dam breaches. But, sooner or later, another one will, and one after that. History has shown us they are not fail-safe. It’s foolhardy to simply leave these unused ponds in place (for how long?) and cross our fingers. And we cannot ignore that heavy metals are leaching into our groundwater from them. While the ponds on the Catawba River, near Charlotte, and the Dan River spill have gotten most of the attention, it’s time to also pay attention to the Buck coal ash ponds on the Yadkin River. This is our river, and our string of lakes. We live along it, play along it, boat on it, fish in it. Even a relatively minor coal ash spill would wreak havoc with our environment and our economy. A major coal ash spill would be unthinkably devastating.