It’s agreed that Duke Energy needs to stop the contamination of waterways and areas surrounding its 33 unlined coal ash ponds at 14 coal-fired power plants located across North Carolina. But state officials, activists and company leaders are at odds over the best way to address the problem.

In the wake of the massive spill into the Dan River in February, environmental groups are demanding that the nation’s largest utility remove the more than 100 million tons of hazardous coal ash away from rivers and lakes.

This would entail drying the coal ash, which contains toxic substance such as lead, arsenic and mercury, according to WCHL’s resident science expert and engineer Jeff Danner.

Duke Energy representatives told a legislative committee last week that removing all of the coal ash away from the state’s rivers and lakes would take decades and cost up to $10 billion, with the company’s customers likely to pay for the majority of the cleanup, the Associated Press reported.

“If it were just the time and the expense involved, I would say, ‘Just go ahead and get on with it,’ but I think it is important to understand that the excavation and transportation process would be an extraordinarily dangerous thing to attempt,” Danner said.

Danner, who has been following the fallout from the coal ash spill, said that from an engineering standpoint, he believes the safest way to deal with the coal ash is to continue to store it on-site, but in a different manner, without having to dry it.

Drying coal ash ponds to remove the waste would be dangerous if it were to become uncontained and dispersed.

Danner suggested incorporating the coal ash into solid blocks of concrete as a safer form of long-term storage.

He said that attempting to dry and move the coal ash waste could prove to be disastrous and result in accidents associated with these types of non-routine procedures, he said.

“In order to keep it on-site and keep it from blowing away in the wind, it is kept under water,” he said. “When you hear ‘coal ash pond,’ [it means] that they are keeping it under the water so that it doesn’t blow away.”

Inhaling coal ash, he said, obviously leads to getting the toxic substance in your lungs which can cause immediate health problems and can lead to cancer.

If the coal ash were to be hauled away in massive amounts to a central lined-landfill, Danner said the risk would be too high. Having to excavate the collection ponds and relocating the massive amounts of coal ash that have accumulated over the years versus disposing of it as it accrued are very different matters.

“I think if you want to say what should have happened in all these years from the very beginning is that it would have been manageable to store this waste and take it off-site in small increments as it was generated over the last couple of decades,” Danner said.

Duke Energy officials told lawmakers last week that they proposed to excavate the coal ash at only three of its power plants in an effort to be more cost efficient. For the remaining plants, they would dry the ash and cover it with giant tarps topped with soil.

Danner said that this method would not be a viable long-term solution either and that the tarps would corrode over time.

The most environmentally friendly and least dangerous threat to human health, he said, could be done without having to dry the coal ash.

From a broader perspective, Danner said that Duke Energy could fund studies to examine the larger issue of coal ash ponds and find better solutions for how to store it.