Charlotte’s city council took its first look Monday night at a proposal to convert the toxic leftovers of burnt coal into a building material at Charlotte Douglas airport.
Duke Energy has a problem: Millions of tons of coal ash are stored in earthen ponds next to waterways across the state. The failure of one of those ponds caused 30,000 tons of ash to spill into the Dan River last month, and spurred regulators to demand the closure of others across the state, including at the retired Riverbend power plant near Mountain Island Lake, where four million tons of coal ash sit near Charlotte’s primary water source.
Duke Energy environmental director Dave Mitchell told city council last night that the company wants to haul it all to the airport.
“This structural fill would provide stable, graded land for future development at the airport,” Mitchell said.
That means flat land for runways, taxiways, and other uses.
Asheville has used coal ash from a nearby power plant for landfill, in a similar project, for the past five years. The airport has been scant on details, but says it incurs no cost. A similar scheme in Charlotte could be attractive to an airport that is considering installing a new runway. The nine million tons of dirt for the last runway cost the city $70 million.
Charles Price, president of Charah—the environmental company that handles the coal ash conversion—says Duke releases liability of the ash to his company once they load the waste into trucks at the pond. From there, contract negotiations would determine further liability, for instance if the city would be culpable should leaks crop up at the airport in future years.
Price also says the project would bring 100 jobs to Charlotte.
Councilmembers spent more than two hours asking pointed questions about the process, especially about environmental effects. Some had answers. For instance, Charah washes each truck after it is loaded at the pond, to prevent flyaway ash.
But most questions, such as about financial details, remain to be determined. Councilwoman Vi Lyles asked staff to provide more options.
“We’re looking at one method,” said Lyles. “Due diligence to me says I look at a number of options available, and then I make a decision on whether this is the right way to do it.”
But support for pursuing this particular option came from a long-time critic of Duke—Rick Gaskins, head of the local environmental group the Catawba Riverkeeper.
“When we get up here it can sound like we’re anti-everything. I would say this is something worth looking at,” Gaskins said. “We need to get the coal ash away from our drinking water reservoir. This is a viable solution. Is it the perfect solution that I would like to see? It isn’t. But I think it could be a very good solution.”
Gaskins did worry about ash coming off the trucks in transport, and provided a list of topics he thought the council should vet before entering any agreement.
Once at the airport, the ash would be wrapped in clay and plastic, so toxic chemicals do not leach out, and then that would be buried beneath six feet of soil. Gaskins cautioned council members they need to make sure the encasing can survive airplanes landing on it for decades.
Airport officials say they have not identified specific projects that could use the ash yet. The council agreed to have staff report back after a 60-day due diligence period with more details.