MOREHEAD CITY — The N.C. Council of State – the governor’s cabinet – agreed July 11 in Raleigh to lease space at the N.C. Port of Morehead City to an Ohio company to store and re-ship 150,000 tons of coal fly ash from India.
The lease, which N.C. Ports Authority spokesperson Laura Blair said Monday is with Spartan Materials LLC, is for two years, with no guaranteed state option to renew.
Ms. Blair, ports authority vice president of administration and external affairs, said the port will receive the fly ash – which she said is different than what is commonly referred to generically as coal ash – in double-lined bags from India. The material, she said, will be transferred into sealed silos, which other reports have identified as Warehouse 6, at the port.
From there, she said, the product will be shipped by truck or rail cars to various concrete ready-mix plants, which will use it in the production of cement for concrete construction projects, such as sidewalks and bridges.
Ms. Blair said she did not know when the first bags of fly ash would arrive, and did not know the financial terms of the lease. But, she added, ports authority officials would decide after the two-year term whether to pursue continuation of the relationship, and she added that officials view it as a financial benefit and job-creator for the port and the state.
Spartan has a right of first refusal for a long-term lease of two acres at the port if it decides to build a bulk operation that could store 200,000 tons of ash a year.
The move is stirring concerns among environmentalists locally and in the region and comes in the wake of years of controversy in the state over what to do with ash from coal-fired electric plants owned by energy giant Duke Energy of Charlotte.
“There are a lot of questions about why North Carolina should be importing coal ash from overseas when we’re awash in it here, and it’s a big management and pollution problem,” Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the Carteret County-based N.C. Coastal Federation said Monday. “That’s a question for our elected and appointed officials who are working to solve the problems we have with storage of coal ash around the state.
“We should be doing everything possible to manage our existing stockpiles, and get rid of this festering problem that has caused substantial damage to our state’s rivers.”
Derb Carter, director of the Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, called importation of coal waste “perplexing.”
Although concrete companies contend they don’t have enough of the material to satisfy demand, Mr. Carter, like Mr. Miller, said, the state – at Duke Energy’s sites – is “awash” in it.
SELC is very concerned about the port’s importation of the ash, he said.
“We don’t know for sure what is in this material that will come in from India, but we do know that, generally, coal ash contains a number of substances, including arsenic, that pose risks to surface waters and groundwater,” he added.
The National Resource Defense Council’s website notes that, “Coal ash is a general term” that “refers to whatever waste is leftover after coal is combusted, usually in a coal-fired power plant.”
Other websites list a number of possible and likely substances found in coal ash, including mercury and traces of dioxins.
But coal ash is commonly divided into two subcategories based on particle size.
Fly ash particles are the lightest kind of coal ash, so light that they “fly” up into the exhaust stacks of the power plant.
Power plant filters are supposed to catch almost all of it, and fly ash is recyclable. The fine particles bind together and solidify, especially when mixed with water, making them an ideal and supposedly non-toxic ingredient in concrete and wallboard.
The Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 ruled that coal fly ash is regulated as ““non-hazardous.”
But that doesn’t mean it is a simple issue.
The controversy over coal ash in North Carolina began in 2014, when an underground pipe burst at a Duke Energy steam station north of Greensboro, spilling close to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The toxic sludge spread 70 miles downstream. It took crews nearly a week just to stop the spill, according to reports.
The incident sparked outrage among residents and environmentalists who were concerned about the toxic substances found in the ash, and potential impacts on water quality, wildlife and agriculture.
Some people who lived nearby said they found contamination in their wells, and others around Duke’s 13 other coal-fired plants have said the same thing, but Duke has maintained there’s no proof it came from ash.
The state eventually ordered Duke to close dozens of storage basins that some say contain up to 155 million tons of ash. Duke is seeking rate hikes to make customers pay the bulk of a cleanup cost it says could reach $5.1 billion.
According to the state Department of Environmental Quality website, DEQ filed four lawsuits in 2013 alleging violations of state law regarding unlawful discharges and groundwater contamination at all 14 Duke Energy facilities.
In addition, the state General Assembly in 2016 adopted the Coal Ash Management Act, which DEQ says put Duke Energy on a timetable to close all its coal ash ponds.
State legislators in that law also ordered Duke to build three facilities that would process ash into a form that can be used in concrete.
Last month, Mr. Carter said, Duke announced the last of those facilities will be built at Moncure, in addition to previously announced sites at power plants in Salisbury and Goldsboro.
According to the state law, they are supposed to begin operation by 2020 – earlier if possible – and are supposed to process 900,000 tons of ash a year.
Mr. Carter said Duke “just made the decision” to build the facility at Moncure, but it doesn’t make sense.
“That’s one of the smallest sites,” said Mr. Carter, whose organization has been in lawsuits over the coal ash issue. “We had hoped they would attach this third facility to one of the larger sites.”
Although he knows that precautions will be taken in the storage of the fly ash at the state port in Morehead City, he’s concerned about the transportation of the material later, in trucks, to the concrete plants.
“That could be largely avoided if our existing supply of the material, at the Duke sites, would be used instead of bringing in more, from overseas,” he said. “The risk could be avoided if we just didn’t import any of it. It is, honestly, perplexing.”
Mr. Miller said he also is concerned about transportation and storage.
“This material needs to be sheltered from weather and potential storm surges so as not to create a problem with contaminated runoff into our sensitive coastal estuaries,” he said.
“If it’s being kept inside a secure warehouse that is not prone to flooding, and conveyed securely off the ships and transported within North Carolina without being exposed to the weather, then I would assume that there would not be a contamination issue. I would hope that’s the plan.”
Despite repeated assurances of responses by email or phone, no one from Spartan Materials LLC commented by presstime.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.