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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

Turning Coal Ash Into Roofing Tile, Makeup: Commission Hears Options

Dave DeWitt

For a century, utility companies in North Carolina simply dumped coal ash in nearby pits and ponds. But within the last several decades, other states have found uses for coal ash in construction and road-building, limiting the amount that makes it into the landfills.

During its second full meeting Wednesday, the Coal Ash Management Commission heard the many ways states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and South Carolina are reusing coal ash.

“We need a corporate commitment from North Carolina public utilities and not just our big one,” said Jim Hardin, a coal ash combustion engineer with CH2M, referring to Duke Energy. “Beneficial re-use is down in every type of power generation.”

Duke Energy currently stores about 108 million tons of coal ash in 32 ponds across the state. The Coal Ash Management Commission was formed by the state Legislature after a massive coal ash spill on the Dan River last February.

Coal ash, if it is encapsulated, can be reused in products ranging from cement to roofing tiles to makeup.

Coal ash that has already been dumped in ponds is less likely to be commercially viable.

The industry leader is Wisconsin Energy. It reuses about 95 percent of its coal ash and has higher electricity rates.

“We’re at about 30-to-35 percent recycling, maybe a little less, in our state,” said Hardin.

At least one environmental advocacy group claims that beneficial reuse in Wisconsin has tainted wells.

The Coal Ash Commission’s next report to the Legislature will focus on the opportunities, challenges, and costs of reusing coal ash.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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