Southern law center threatens to sue Duke over Riverbend coal ash storage

The Southern Environmental Law Center said March 26 that it has sent a notice to Duke Energy Carolinas LLC that it will bring suit under the Clean Water Act to stop Duke’s coal ash pollution of Mountain Island Lake, the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the greater Charlotte, N.C., area.

SELC is representing the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, which monitors the site and has brought the pollution to Duke’s attention. To date, the center said, Duke has taken no action to stop the pollution.

Duke operates the coal-fired Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake on the Catawba River in Gaston County, near Charlotte. The facility includes two unlined coal ash lagoons containing millions of tons of coal ash, which stick out into Mountain Island Lake, the center said. The millions of tons of ash are separated from the drinking water reservoir only by an 80-foot tall earthen berm, which is leaking, the center added. Duke plans to close its Riverbend facility, but plans to leave the coal ash next to Mountain Island Lake forever, the center said.

Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at SELC, stated: “Duke should not be storing toxic coal ash in unlined lagoons beside Charlotte’s drinking water reservoir. If there was ever a place where it is irresponsible to store coal ash, this is it. Duke should remove its toxic ash to a lined landfill away from drinking water and remove pollutants from the groundwater.”

The notice was also sent to the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) and to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If Duke does not take appropriate action to stop its pollution within 60 days, the SELC said it and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation will file suit in federal court to stop the pollution.

Duke Energy Carolinas and sister company Progress Energy Carolinas are both subsidiaries of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK).

Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas on March 22 filed an update about power unit retirements at the South Carolina Public Service Commission. For Duke Energy Carolinas those retirements included Riverbend Units 4-7, 454 MW in total, with an original retirement date of April 15, 2015, since revised to April 1, 2013.

Duke said it is making all the right moves when it comes to ash management

“We are reviewing Tuesday’s notice and deciding on next steps,” said Duke in a March 28 e-mail statement about the SELC notice sent to GenerationHub. “We agree Mountain Island Lake is a critical resource for our region, and Duke Energy has been monitoring water quality there since 1953. We consistently find that water quality is good, fish are healthy and drinking water supplies are safe.”

Duke said the relevant points in this matter include:

  • Seepage is normal and necessary for an earthen dam’s structural integrity. The utility has routinely informed the state of the seepage occurring at the toe of ash dams. The volume of seepage is extremely small and has no impact to the overall water quality in the lake.
  • Duke monitors groundwater around the Riverbend ash basins and reports that data to state regulators. It has found elevated levels of iron, manganese and low pH, which pose no health risk.
  • Arsenic levels in Mountain Island Lake are at the lowest amounts laboratory instruments can accurately measure just a short distance from the plant, Duke noted.

As for ash basin closure, Duke said:

  • “We plan to close the ash basins once they are no longer needed, in close coordination with state regulators. We are evaluating multiple closure options to ensure we select methods that provide high water quality protection, while balancing the many interests of our customers.”
  • The ash basins provide an important stormwater management function for the site and will need to continue operating for a limited time after the plant retires. Duke will submit a closure plan one year prior to ash basin closure as required by the NC DENR.
  • “Our responsibility does not end once the plant retires,” Duke noted. “Even once the ash basins are closed, Duke Energy will continue monitoring groundwater there for many years and will continue to manage and steward the site. We will continue our commitment to safety and protecting the environment through and after site decommissioning.”
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.