Buck Steam Station: coal-fired plant is closed, but 85 years of waste remains

 Aerial photo of primary coal ash pond at Buck Steam Station from the Salisbury Post

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.

Views: 1196

Tags: Buck Steam Station, Duke Energy, Yadkin River, coal ash, environment, water quality

Comment by flowerchild on February 20, 2014 at 5:30pm

You can sign a petition on Roy Cooper's website calling for the General Assembly to clean up North Carolina's water, including the coal ash ponds:  http://www.roycooper.com/action/l/protect-our-water-now-fb

Okay, I know this is politically motivated, Cooper is running for Governor.  But he did stand up to Duke Energy on the rate increases.

Comment by another David on February 20, 2014 at 6:14pm

As bad as the Dan River spill is, it could have been worse - TONS AND TONS AND TONS WORSE!

Comment by Ann on February 21, 2014 at 12:51am

I didn't want to put everything including the kitchen sink into the main post, but a few additional comments:

  • A Duke employee once told me that, in addition to the 3 coal ash ponds we know about, there are also 2 retired (covered up) coal ash ponds or piles on the property.  I do not know whether Duke did this under an action plan approved by DENR, or did it on their own.  It's a question which should be answered.
  • We have no idea what other chemical waste may be buried on the property.  The NC Utilities Commission called the property a brownfield.
  • Residents in the East Spencer area have said that Duke used to spread their used oil on unpaved roads there and near High Rock Lake.
  • When the EPA did their testing, they sampled sediment near the Buck Steam plant.  It did not have high levels of PCBs.  But one of the contaminated catfish was caught just a little downriver from the plant.

Maybe one of these days I'll do a post about Duke Energy's complete lack of concern for destroying important historic sites.

Comment by Whigkid on February 21, 2014 at 7:45pm

A WRAL article states that the nation's 2nd largest coal ash spill occurred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant) in 2011.  That incident did not involve a coal ash pond, but rather a bluff collapsed which contained coal ash backfill.  Wisconsin's DNR estimated 2,500 cubic yards (= 504,925 gallons) of ash reached Lake Michigan, putting it well behind the size of the Dan River spill (which is the 4th worst).  I don't know where all this inaccurate information is coming from, but it sure does get passed on without anyone checking the facts.

Comment by Whigkid on February 21, 2014 at 11:24pm

Ahem.  I have an announcement to make.

At this time, both pipes which were leaking/spilling into the Dan River have been plugged, and there are NO active releases into the river.  Aluminum and iron still exceed surface water quality standards near the coal ash spill site, but all other constituents meet surface water quality standards.  Long term assessment and clean up efforts continue.  I only say this because some people are unnecessarily alarming folks.

You can check DENR's and the EPA's websites for updates:

NC DENR Dan River Coal Ash Spill

EPA Response to Release of Coal Ash into the Dan River

Comment by Stop Global Whining on February 22, 2014 at 10:51am

What I want to know is why the self-coronated "Riverkeeper" not focused his energies on the threat posed to the Yadkin River system of lakes by the presence of a very large set of coal ash ponds at Buck Steam Plant?  It seems that during his tenure, he has engaged in an all-out smear campaign against the owner of the lakes, Alcoa.  But the pollution they've created no longer poses an active threat to the Yadkin Valley.  So why is there no more focus on Duke Energy's coal ash ponds, beyond a recent statement to the effect of, "Yeah, we got those, too"?

I'd like to see Yadkin Voices and Views conduct an interview with the guy who calls himself the "Riverkeeper", and get some answers.  And for those who may question it, I realize that the self-designated term, "Riverkeeper" is the trademark chosen by a nonprofit corporation that is out there to seek private, government and NGO funding for their environmental efforts.  So I know it's not like he or his nonprofit group were chosen in an election by the people of the region.  

Comment by Ann on February 22, 2014 at 3:37pm

I'd like to see the Yadkin Riverkeeper be accountable and answer all questions put to him in a public venue the way DENR, the EPA, and Duke Energy have!

He's ignored, or paid very very minimal attention to, a host of problems along the Yadkin River.  When the racetrack environmental issues, almost next door to the Duke Energy plant, were at their height - over 4 million gallons of sludge had spilled and run into a stream that feeds into the river - sedimentation from unpermitted bulldozing could be seen gushing into the river in aerial photographs - I brought the problem to his attention and he "didn't see what he could do about it."  The racetrack went belly up, the problems were left behind - along with the demolished rubble of the old mill - and I am the only person looking for solutions.

He completely ignored the repeated Thomasville sewage discharges for several years, even after a local citizen wrote a letter to the editor of the Lexington Dispatch.  It was only after the Dispatch was doing an article on the problem, and called him for a comment, that he began to pay attention to the situation.  He devoted about one sentence to it in his recent meeting on High Rock Lake.

You're right, he was so busy manufacturing false accusations against Alcoa that he never mentioned the Buck Steam plant for four years.  After every other riverkeeper in the state became involved in the issue of coal ash ponds, he finally climbed on that band wagon, but has still only mentioned the Buck Steam plant half-heartedly a handful of times.  He's been too busy doing an interview with Al Jazeera and tweeting incessantly about the Dan River spill.

And he hasn't mentioned the illegal PCB dumping in Charlotte two weeks ago.

When he first started, I suggested to him that he gather information about all the pollution sources in the watershed, find out what the entire picture is.  Still seems like a good idea to me.

Here's another question:  What do we have to do to get a good riverkeeper?  One who isn't an inveterate liar and who doesn't call everyone who doesn't agree with his agenda and methods a "murderer" and "whore" would be a good start.

Comment by Stop Global Whining on February 22, 2014 at 7:34pm

Ms. Brownlee, your question, "What do we have to do to get a good riverkeeper?" assumes that we actually need a "riverkeeper".  It is a tradmarked name, and was actually assumed by a nonprofit that wants to use the designation to strong-arm the accoutrements of ownership away from Alcoa.  It's why they started the infamous "Alcoa is Evil" campaign, and participated in the Vajda UNC TV scandal that caused such a controversy.  

If I might suggest, a grass-roots citizens' group should push for a detached, independent audit of water quality in the distressed areas you mentioned.  Senator Brock has committee responsibilities which include natural resources oversight.  Why not ask him and other local legislators to look into the problems that are being overlooked, as the nonprofit shills keep their single-minded focus on expropriating Alcoa's property.  Heck, I would not even wait for the nonprofit to make the first responsible move towards water quality, any more than I'd expect Governor McCrory to do so!

Comment by Ann on February 22, 2014 at 9:23pm

As I understand it, a Riverkeeper organization is supposed to be an inclusive organizational effort, to which many people with different interests would belong, make collective decisions, and participate.  We've never had that.  All we've had is a one-man show.  Anyone who isn't behind Dean Naujok's anti-Alcoa takeover attempt, or at least tolerant of it, has been driven away.  He's never even listened to the stakeholders in Alcoa's relicensing process.


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