Duke’s decision to recycle coal ash helps with PR problem

If Christine Ellis and Mac Legerton are pleased with a decision by Duke Energy concerning coal-ash disposal, then so are we.

Ellis, of the South Carolina-based Winyah-Rivers Foundation, and Legerton, executive director of the Center for Community Action, have been eager and vocal critics of Duke Energy and its plan for disposing of coal ash at the now-shuttered Weatherspoon plant. It appears that their persistence has paid off.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity, which is how Robeson County was powered for decades. But it contains numerous elements, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, hazardous to the health of humans and to the environment.

Willis and Legerton have worried that the coal ash might get into the local drinking supply, and then cause health problems for people and animals as well. So they objected when Duke’s first plan was to try to seal the 2.5 million tons of coal ash at Weatherspoon but leave it on site.

The state eventually ordered the coal ash removed from the Weatherspoon site, and ordered that done no later than 2028.

Duke Energy’s plan then became to excavate the coal ash and haul it to Lee County for deposit in a lined landfill there, which satisfied the state’s mandate, but not Willis and Legerton. They saw that as simply exporting this county’s coal-ash threat to another county — and it was hard to disagree.

Recently, Duke Energy relented, and announced that it will recycle the coal ash rather than transporting it for disposal in Lee County.

“I’m really pleased and happy about this,” Ellis said. “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

Said Legerton: “We don’t want them dumping coal ash from here into other communities. … No community should have the burden of this kind of waste. We don’t do it with human waste so why should it be done with material waste of this kind?”

Dawn Santoianni, a Duke Energy spokesperson, said the coal ash can be put back to work, including as cement blocks used for the construction of bridges and buildings.

Santoianni suggested the utility embraced the idea, even if it took a while getting there.

“Recycling coal ash makes sense for many reasons,” she said. “Customers and the environment benefit by reducing the need for additional disposal locations, and recycling can lower costs when compared to relocating ash to a new disposal facility.”

It certainly make sense to us, and we wonder why the decision to recycle took so long to reach, especially if it is more economical.

Duke Energy, which is headquartered in Charlotte, is the nation’s largest supplier of electricity, a distinction it earned with the merger of Progress Energy, and it often shows itself as a responsible corporate citizen. But the company has suffered a public-relations nightmare since nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River in February 2014, creating an environmental disaster and leading to the revelation of the coal-ash issues at power plants across the state.

It will take a lot of goodwill for Duke Energy to convince the public that it is environmentally responsible, but the decision to recycle the Weatherspoon coal ash instead of simply relocating the problem to Lee County is a large step in the right direction.