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By John Murawski, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Years before the accidental coal ash spill into the Dan River in February, the waste was being dumped into creeks, wetlands and vacant fields across North Carolina.

Scores of private ash sites were originally proposed for legitimate construction use — such as building an airstrip or a parking lot — but the construction didn’t always take place.

More than 70 ash sites statewide hold about 11 million cubic yards of ash, much of it used in building roads, parking lots and other projects.

But nearly a quarter of the waste sits at six of the largest sites, where about 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash lies in unlined pits, largely unmonitored for potential groundwater contamination.

Over the years the sites have been cited by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources with violations for creating dust clouds, for being placed too close to water sources, and for ash erosion into water drainage areas. At one site the ash was dumped into a wetland area.

“When they said they had an end use, they didn’t have an end use — it was a form of disposal,” said Ellen Lorschneider, planning and programs branch head of the solid waste section within DENR. “There was abuse of our regulations — the coal was a disposal site they called structural fill.”

As public officials grapple with a solution to safe coal ash storage, the focus has largely been on the future of the 33 ash pits and ponds at power plant facilities that are contaminating nearby groundwater. These sites are operated by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and its Raleigh-based subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, formerly called Progress Energy.

But the 70-plus ash sites throughout the state, many on private property in eastern North Carolina, are also drawing attention after years of neglect. Even where the ash was used as “structural fill” — to level roadways, for road beds and to stabilize soil under buildings — the concern doesn’t go away.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed Coal Ash Action Plan, now under review by lawmakers in Raleigh, includes a temporary moratorium on the use of coal as structural fill in amounts of 5,000 cubic yards or more.

McCrory’s coal ash proposal would also start regulating structural fill as landfilled solid waste. It would require state permits, leak-proof liners and groundwater monitoring for structural fill sites, none of which has been required in past years.

“Under current law, passed by previous administrations, there are more stringent requirements for the disposal of household garbage than there are for certain coal ash applications,” said DENR spokesman Drew Elliot.

The state’s six biggest ash dumps, including four about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh in Halifax County, contain anywhere from 10 times to 100 times more coal ash than is typically needed for construction. The six sites range in size from 127,176 cubic yards to 905,238 cubic yards, according to state records.

The structural fill sites documented by DENR were mostly built after North Carolina adopted regulations in 1994 to promote the “beneficial reuse” of coal ash as structural fill. The use of ash for construction fill is widely accepted and encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state’s structural fills contain coal ash disgorged by Duke and Progress and reused at their own power plants and other construction sites, as well as waste from smaller industrial operations. Duke once sold the ash for 50 cents to $1 a ton, but ash producers also paid to have it hauled away.

It’s not clear how many total structural fill sites exist in the Triangle area or statewide or where they are located, however, because sites built before the 1990s are not documented.

What is clear is that the state’s historic dependence on coal as an energy source to generate electricity produced more ash than the construction industry could use. Duke and Progress for decades have stored excess ash on site in pits and lagoons.

Some enterprising locals saw an opportunity and agreed to haul ash away for a fee, hoping to find a buyer or to use it for development projects.

“It was just a great big huge hole there, and we filled it in,” said Blackwell Bennett Pierce, owner of Utilities Transport, a trucking company that hauled coal ash between 2004 and 2007 to the Arthur’s Creek disposal site in Northampton County, about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh. The site holds 480,612 cubic yards of ash, according to a county deed in the DENR records.

Plumbline Engineering, which designed the ash retention site, paid an administrative penalty of $9,154.88 in 2011 for a number of violations at Arthur’s Creek that included erosion problems and coal ash washing into a nearby creek. DENR officials say the problems have been resolved.

“We thought maybe we might use it for something one day,” Pierce said. “But there’s no use for it. Nobody wanted it.”

Research biologist Dennis Lemly, who works for Wake Forest University and the U.S. Forest Service, has studied the effects of coal ash contaminants and said dry ash storage sites are long-festering problems and overdue for stricter oversight.

“The two operative words are unregulated and mostly unmonitored,” Lemly said. “It raises the larger underlying issue with the state regulatory system.”

Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr

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