North Carolina sues Duke Energy over coal ash at two plants

The Southern Environmental Law Center said May 21 that, after getting a notice of intent to sue from the center, the state of North Carolina has filed suit against Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) over coal ash storage near Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte.

Mountain Island Lake is the source of drinking water for over 750,000 people in the greater Charlotte area, the center noted. Duke Energy has allowed toxic metals and other harmful substances from coal ash in unlined lagoons to pollute Mountain Island Lake, the Catawba River, and groundwater at its Riverbend facility for years, in violation of its water pollution elimination permit, the center said.

“Despite Duke Energy’s past claims that leaks of contaminated water are a sign of a healthy dam, there’s nothing healthy – or legal – about discharging unregulated amounts of toxic and harmful pollutants into the drinking water supply for almost a million people around Charlotte,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the center. “It is dangerous and irresponsible to store toxic coal ash in leaking lagoons on the banks of Mountain Island Lake.”

North Carolina’s suit, filed in the Wake County Superior Court, states that Duke Energy’s “unpermitted seeps” at Mountain Island Lake violate North Carolina law and that Duke Energy’s pollution at Mountain Island Lake “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state,” the center said.

In March, the center sent a 60-day notice to Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources that it intended to file suit against Duke Energy for coal ash and arsenic water pollution at Riverbend.

Only a leaking 80-foot tall earthen berm on a peninsula into the lake separates millions of tons of coal ash in unlined lagoons from the drinking water reservoir, the center said. “Duke CEO Jim Rogers publicly acknowledged the coal ash contamination at Riverbend and has promised that Duke Energy ‘will ultimately end up cleaning up all that,'” said Richard Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba River Foundation. “The question is why Duke Energy isn’t willing to clean up its pollution and move its toxic coal ash to a lined, dry storage now, before even more contamination pollutes the water and sediments of Mountain Island Lake.”

A similar lawsuit by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and SELC against South Carolina Electric and Gas was settled last year when the utility agreed to move all 2.4 million tons of coal ash from its unlined Wateree Station lagoons to a lined landfill, the center noted.

North Carolina says it is now suing over ash storage at two plants

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a May 22 statement that its May 20 lawsuit amendment involves Duke Energy Progress’ (formerly Progress Energy Carolinas) coal-fired plant in Asheville, along with similar environmental compliance issues at the Riverbend coal-fired plant in Gaston County.

“In March, the N.C. Division of Water Quality sought injunctive relief from the state Superior Court requiring the utility to address wastewater discharge permit compliance issues at the plant in Asheville,” said the state. “On Monday, the state agency amended its lawsuit to address similar wastewater discharge permit compliance issues at Duke Energy Progress’ Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County. Monitoring of groundwater at the compliance boundary of the Riverbend Steam Station revealed levels of chemical constituents that exceed requirements for groundwater protection. Also, state water quality inspectors believe that seeps, or releases of liquids not authorized as part of the permitted discharges, have occurred at Riverbend.”

The lawsuit asks that the court require actions by Duke to include the abatement of all violations of state statutes, groundwater standards and permit requirements at the two facilities.

“The motion for injunctive relief is one of the tools available to the Division of Water Quality to pursue remedy from violations of the federal Clean Water Act and state regulations,” the state added. “The division will use the information provided to determine the next steps needed to address the contamination.”

Duke said it is working with the state on ash issues

A Duke spokesperson said May 22 that the company is reviewing the court filing and believes it has diligently complied with Riverbend’s water discharge permit. Duke said it appreciates the state’s desire to obtain as much information as possible related to discharges to Mountain Island Lake and groundwater, and expects to work closely with regulators on this matter.

Other points offered by Duke were:

  • Duke Energy has been monitoring water quality in Mountain Island Lake since 1953. The lake’s water quality remains good, fish are healthy and drinking water supplies are safe.
  • The volume of ash basin seepage is extremely small and has zero impact to the overall water quality in the lake. Seepage is necessary for an earthen dam’s structural integrity, and the company has routinely informed the state of the seepage occurring at ash basin dams,
  • Duke samples groundwater at Riverbend’s ash basins regularly and reports that data to the state. Groundwater sampling at Riverbend’s ash basins finds elevated levels of iron and manganese only. These are common to North Carolina soils and pose no health risk to drinking water, Duke said.
  • As part of the ongoing modernizing of its power plants, Riverbend was retired on April 1. Duke said it plans to close those ash basins once they are no longer needed, in close coordination with state regulators.

Said the Duke website about the Asheville plant: “The two-unit 376-megawatt coal-fired Asheville Plant is located in Skyland, N.C. The site also includes two combustion turbines capable of producing 324 megawatts. The Asheville Plant is the largest electric generating facility in Western North Carolina, and began commercial operation in 1964, with additions in 1971, 1999 and 2000.”

The Duke website said about Riverbend: “Riverbend Steam Station is a coal-fired generating facility located in Gaston County, N.C. The four-unit station is named for a bend in the Catawba River on which it is located. Riverbend is considered a cycling station and is brought on line to supplement supply when electricity demand is highest. Four gas-fired combustion turbine units were retired in October 2012.”

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.