Last night, Duke Energy employees hadn’t yet set up all their tables along the walls of the first-floor hallway of the Lee County Arts and Community Center when Mark Coggins walked in.
And he was here for one reason.
“To see if we can stop the coal ash from coming to Lee County,” Coggins said.
A lifelong resident of Sanford, Coggins is not what you’d call open-minded on the issue.
“The people here that are presenting the information have been lied to, and they are just relaying the lies to the public and the media,” said Coggins. “They don’t know the dangers of coal ash.”
Duke Energy is in the early stages of making plans to move 100-million tons of coal ash from 32 sites across North Carolina. The effort comes after a massive coal ash spill on the Dan River back in February.
A few weeks ago, Duke Energy announced the first phase of a plan to move coal ash from two of the most at-risk sites to two abandoned clay mines in Lee and Chatham Counties.
After some very public backlash in those two communities, Duke organized two events it billed as “informal open-house information sessions.”
As residents walked into the event, they were greeted by Duke Energy employees and contractors wearing nametags and smiles, displaying vials of coal ash, and offering maps and charts.
“I’m upset with the fact that I came up here thinking this was going to be a forum open to the public to come in and ask questions as a general group with a microphone and get answers,” said Bob Smith. “If you walk down the line here, this is nothing but a Duke Energy pony show.”
Duke Energy defended the format.
“These are some of our top experts in the areas that relate to coal ash in our organization,” said Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks. “These are the people that I’ve worked with personally for months on coal ash management. They are some of the best in their field and they are going to be able to provide the answers people need tonight.”
The first phase of the plan that Duke Energy experts have come up with is to move nearly three million tons of coal ash from two plants – Sutton near Wilmington and Riverbend near Charlotte. That coal ash would be transported to an abandoned clay mine outside Sanford and another one nearby in Chatham County.
The landfills will be lined, and the clay will serve as a sort of backup impervious surface, in case of a leak. They are also located near rail lines, limiting the amount of time the ash would spend on trucks. The two mines together could hold up to 30 million tons of coal ash.
Lee County public officials are already looking into a lawsuit, and also potentially seeking millions of dollars in fees that are applied to private landfills.
All of that will likely slow down the process of executing the first phase of the plan.
“We’ve only got five years to completely close these high-priority sites, so we have to begin to move ash now,” said Brooks. “If we don’t start with real-world applications today, we’ll never make that timeline.”
Many environmentalists agree that expedience is key, as every day coal ash spends near a waterway is another day a major spill could happen again.
“An old mine site which has already been disturbed could be a good place,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And water goes through clay less easily than regular soil so it can be even an extra protection. So that kind of approach can be a good approach.”
Tonight, residents in Chatham County will get their chance to learn more about the coal-ash landfill that could be coming to their area. Duke Energy is holding a second “informal open house” in New Hill.