EDEN, N.C. (AP) — Giant earthmoving machines beep and grind as they drop 17-ton scoops of coal ash and dirt into dozens of railroad cars lined up for two-thirds of a mile at a site along the Virginia-North Carolina border, where the country's largest electricity company was responsible for one of the worst spills of the toxic, liquefied waste in U.S. history.
Duke Energy Corp. will ship 1.5 million tons of residue from decades of burning coal for electricity to a contracted landfill about 130 miles away in central Virginia. The utility built 2 miles of railroad track just to connect existing rail lines with the excavation site.
Once the contents of the pit roughly a quarter mile from the Dan River are emptied, it'll be lined with waterproof material so heavy metals won't filter into water underground or the river. Then it will be refilled with much of the 1.5 million tons of liquefied coal ash taken from two other pits closer to the river's edge. A burst pipe at one of them triggered the disaster two years ago this week and led officials to re-examine how they plan to cope with similar dangers at basins around the country.
The nation's cleanup price tag, which utility customers may be asked to pay, already is pushing into the billions.
Many who live near coal ash pits fear the waste allows heavy metals to filter into their groundwater, and they say it's past time to move the stuff. For the past 10 months, Duke Energy has been providing Deborah Graham's family with bottled water after the state health department warned that her well water near another Duke site was contaminated with toxic heavy metals.
"We want it fixed," said Graham, who wants the pits dug out and the waste moved from Buck power plant, her neighbor, 40 miles northeast of Charlotte. "No one should have to look at their faucet with fear."
Coal ash byproducts include arsenic, chromium, lead, and boron. Duke Energy's lawyers admit that over the past 90 years, coal ash has tainted groundwater below the unlined basins at its Buck plant, but they deny that it has polluted neighboring water wells like Graham's.
The company last year agreed to pay $7 million to settle allegations of groundwater pollution at its coal ash pits. Duke Energy also pleaded guilty to criminal violations of federal water pollution laws and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and remediation.
More than 230 power plants in 33 of the country's 48 continental states have coal-ash impoundments, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Utilities in Georgia and Virginia say EPA rules that took effect last year are the reason they're closing all their coal-ash basins.
The tighter standards took years to develop after the country's largest spill, the 2008 dam collapse at a Tennessee Valley Authority site in Kingston, Tennessee. It destroyed 40 homes and cost more than $1.1 billion over six years to clean up. The rules came out after the Dan River spill pushed North Carolina legislators to force cleanup ahead of the EPA rules.
Now that enforcement is coming, utilities can be expected to follow a common industrial practice — overstating cleanup costs to pressure lawmakers and rule-makers to tread lightly, said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
"Industry will complain that it's going to cost millions and millions more dollars to comply with a particular regulation than you actually see once the regulation is in place and the wheels start turning and there's competition and innovation," Evans said. "There's lots of companies competing for the cleanup jobs and the construction of landfills."
Meanwhile, South Carolina's three utilities also are moving coal ash from riverside power plants after lawsuits and other pressure by environmentalists. Santee Cooper and SCE&G have said they don't expect to pass on costs to ratepayers, but that could change.
Duke Energy, however, said it will seek permission to raise power bills in both Carolinas to pay for the cleanup.
The utility set aside about $3.5 billion for expected cleanup costs in the two states, but the EPA rules added $448 million in new liabilities through September, the company said in its most recent earnings report.
If that $4 billion were passed on to ratepayers, the average North Carolina household could see electricity prices rise by an average of about $18 a year over 25 years, according to a calculation by accountants for an independent state agency that represents consumers in rate proceedings.
North Carolina environmental regulators haven't yet decided which sites will be excavated and carted to new, lined burying grounds. Elsewhere, wastewater will be pumped off the pits into nearby rivers before the basins are covered with waterproof liners, soil and grass.
"But we will do everything we can to keep cost impacts as manageable as possible in any potential cost recovery filing that we might make in the future," Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email.
The company said excavating and reburying the coal ash in lined landfills could cost as much as $10 billion. That's more than Duke Energy spent to scrap a quarter of its coal-burning power capacity and open 10 new natural gas and coal plants in North Carolina, Florida and Indiana since 2009, the company said.
It might not cost that much, but it's a starting point for understanding the ripple effects of the North Carolina experience with coal ash, "which I would argue are indicative of what rest of the country is going to see," said John Daniels, an authority on handling coal ash and chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Graham said she bitterly opposes Duke Energy raising rates to pay for removing what she believes is a threat to her home and family.
"The customer has already paid for that electricity when they pay the power bill. This is their trash left over," Graham said.