ARDEN — A fine layer of coal ash covers Tom Nye’s house at Lake Julian Trails, coating the outside of his home and settling on windowsills.
Nye knew he was living behind a power plant when he moved to the townhouse near Progress Energy’s coal-fired plant two years ago.
But he didn’t know about the coal ash pond about 100 yards beyond a fence separating Lake Julian Trails from the plant.
“They were there before we were, but if I had known it would be like this, I would definitely have not bought a place here,” Nye said. “It concerns me. I keep my windows closed now.”
Similar concerns by environmentalists and the government helped prompt proposals for tightening control over the potentially hazardous waste product from burning coal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will outline the proposals in a Sept. 14 public hearing in Charlotte — one of seven being held nationwide.
More than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash breached a dike at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in 2008, spilling the waste into and around the Emory River.
That accident helped lead to what would be the first national regulations over coal ash, which contains such substances as arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
After it is captured by pollution controls, coal ash can be mixed with water and stored in coal ash ponds.
The agency is now trying to decide between two options for implementing the rules.
One phases out ash ponds and moves all coal ash to dry landfills, where it would be under federal enforcement rules for hazardous waste.
The other allows disposal of coal ash in ponds, but with stricter safety criteria.
This option would regulate ash ponds under rules for nonhazardous waste, relying on lawsuits by states and citizens for enforcement.
Neither would end coal ash’s use in concrete, roofing and other applications, including as a structural fill for a 15-acre expansion at Asheville Regional Airport.
Regulating coal ash
The state now regulates coal ash ponds. Progress Energy has two at its Skyland site, one that was used from 1962-82 and an active pond with a capacity of 450 million gallons.
The utility supports allowing coal ash disposal in ponds under rules for nonhazardous waste, spokesman Scott Sutton said.
That option allows for greater flexibility by utilities, while the other would handcuff power companies by regulating what methods they can use for storing coal ash and would raise costs for consumers.
Environmental groups support classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, phasing out use of the ponds and allowing for direct federal enforcement. They said this option would be more protective of human health.
“If it is classified as hazardous, the feds will regulate it from the cradle to the grave, wherever coal ash is,” said Judy Mattox, vice chairwoman of the Western North Carolina branch of the Sierra Club. “We’re asking the EPA to just acknowledge that it’s hazardous and regulate it from point A to point B.”
Environmental groups are concerned about coal ash and contaminants blowing into neighboring homes, seeping into groundwater and getting into the nearby French Broad River, where water from the coal ash ponds is discharged after the coal ash settles to the bottom.
They said tests by the Environmental Quality Institute have found high levels of arsenic in the water.
“Whether you can prove people have cancer from coal ash — it is hard to prove, said French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “But we know it’s bad for you.”
The Skyland plant has more development encroaching on it than other power plants. In January 2009, cenospheres, another product of coal combustion floating on the top of the coal ash pond, blew into Lake Julian Trails.
The EPA ranks the Skyland plant’s dams as “highly hazardous” because of their proximity to Interstate 26.
Progress Energy said the cenospheres are not hazardous. It has worked to reduce the amount of cenospheres on top of the pond and put in vegetation to keep the cenospheres from blowing into Lake Julian Trails.
The utility also is monitoring groundwater around the coal ash pond. High levels of boron, iron and manganese have been found, and the utility is installing additional wells to find out why.
But Sutton said the elements pose no threat to health and safety.
Progress Energy has worked with Lake Julian Trails over the years to reduce noise and pollution coming from the plant, he said.
“We have not had large numbers of complaints (about coal ash blowing into the development) and if it is happening, they definitely should get in touch with us,” Sutton said.
“If we need to do a better job wetting down the site or getting our contractors down there on a more timely basis, we can do that,” he said.