Groups file complaint over Duke coal ash ponds in North Carolina

Conservation groups on Oct. 10 asked the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to require Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas, both subsidiaries of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), to clean up groundwater allegedly hurt by leaking, unlined coal ash lagoons at 14 coal-fired power plants.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said that it filed the complaint on behalf of the Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

“It’s irresponsible to North Carolina’s families that utilities know coal ash slurry is seeping poisons into groundwater and rivers without cleaning it up,” said DJ Gerken, senior attorney at the center.

Self-monitoring by Progress Energy Carolinas confirms that contamination around its coal ash waste ponds at its Asheville and L. V. Sutton facilities exceeded state standards for groundwater quality, the center said. Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas have filed reports with state regulators that confirm contamination at 12 other facilities across the state, the center added.

“Despite the acknowledged contamination, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not required the utilities to cleanup these sites,” the center said. “Today’s filing asks the state to take decisive action to protect North Carolina’s residents.”

Among the coal waste contaminants that exceeded state standards in groundwater at the Asheville plant near the French Broad River and L.V. Sutton plant near the Cape Fear River are thallium and selenium, the center said. Arsenic levels exceeded state groundwater standards at the Sutton plant, the center added.

“Groundwater monitoring at the Sutton coal ash ponds show arsenic levels 27 times higher than safe groundwater standards, just half a mile from drinking water wells,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper at the Cape Fear River Watch. “The risk to human health is too great to ignore any longer.”

Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas confirmed contamination from older coal ash waste ponds at 14 of their facilities across the state, the center said, including: L.V. Sutton, Asheville, Allen, Belews Creek, Buck, Cliffside, Dan River, Marshall, Riverbend, Cape Fear, Lee, Mayo, Roxboro and W.H. Weatherspoon.

Duke says groups are overstating the risks of ash ponds

Duke Energy said in an Oct. 11 e-mail statement that it is reviewing the Oct. 10 filing. “In typical fashion, these organizations draw health conclusions that are not based in fact and well overstate the risks to communities from coal ash storage,” the company added. “Duke Energy and Progress Energy have been sampling groundwater around their ash basins for years, and all that data have been reported to state regulators along the way.”

Duke said the vast majority of exceedances of groundwater standards involve iron and manganese, which often occur naturally at elevated levels independent of any influence by ash basins. Iron and manganese affect the taste and odor of drinking water but present no health risks, Duke added. “Exceedances for other compounds have been inconsistent, and we have been working closely with the state to provide additional information through modeling and further trend analysis as needed,” it said.

Also, an exceedance at or near the ash basin doesn’t mean groundwater off the site has been or would be impacted, Duke said. “If our testing were to show any indication that neighbors’ groundwater was being impacted, we would work with state regulators to address and resolve the problem,” the company stated.

“We continue to be committed to managing coal ash responsibly at all our plants and have invested millions of dollars converting to dry fly ash storage in lined landfills at nearly all the our large Carolinas stations,” said Duke. “In addition, many smaller coal stations have closed or will close soon, and we will work with state regulators to close the ash basins at those sites.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.