Groups file lawsuit against Duke unit over Sutton coal ash

Conservation groups on Sept. 12 filed suit in federal court against Duke Energy Progress in an effort to force a clean up of coal ash pollution of Sutton Lake near Wilmington, N.C, and coal ash pollution of groundwater at its Sutton power plant. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center said in a Sept. 12 statement that the coal ash pollution threatens to destroy the fishery of Sutton Lake, a popular regional fishing lake, and is moving toward the groundwater wells that supply drinking water for the nearby Flemington community, a diverse low-income neighborhood.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the Clean Water Act suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, the Sierra Club, and the Waterkeeper Alliance. Duke Energy Progress, a subsidiary of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), had been known up until recently as Progress Energy Carolinas.

“Duke Energy Progress’s toxic coal ash pollution is killing a regional fishing lake and is threatening a community’s drinking water,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It is long past time to take strong, effective action to clean up this pollution of the Wilmington community.”

In response to an official notice from the conservation groups, the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) recently brought an enforcement action in state court against Duke Energy Progress, citing groundwater pollution. DENR stated under oath that Duke Energy Progress’s pollution “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of the State of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the State,” the center noted.

However, it said the DENR state enforcement action did not seek to clean up Sutton Lake and did not enforce permit and Clean Water Act standards against the groundwater pollution at Sutton. The Sept. 12 federal lawsuit seeks action to enforce these standards and ensure Duke Energy Progress stops polluting groundwater, the center added.

Duke says plant shutdown is imminent, with final cleanup to then start

Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert noted in a Sept. 12 e-mail to GenerationHub that the Sutton coal plant will be retired in late 2013 as a new 625-MW natural gas plant begins operating at the site. The station will then begin decommissioning, which will be a multi-year process that will result in safely deconstructing the coal units and effectively closing its ash basins. This provides the ultimate resolution to ash basin concerns, Culbert noted.

In general, Culbert added:

  • Duke Energy has complied diligently with its water discharge permit, and the Sutton plant has a long history of safety and high operational excellence. State permitting experts write permits in a way that ensures lakes and rivers are well protected.
  • Duke has been monitoring groundwater at the site since 1990 and routinely reports that data to state regulators. Monitoring data show the well water system near the plant remains in compliance today, and there is no current public health risk to those supplied by these wells.
  • Trace elements in the cooling lake, such as selenium, have been consistently well within state surface water quality standards in recent years. Selenium levels slightly exceeded those standards in 2007-2009, which is attributable to drought conditions at that time.
  • Duke also monitors game fish tissue in the cooling lake and find mercury and selenium are consistently below the state Health and Human Services fish consumption advisory levels.
  • Duke routinely samples water quality in the Cape Fear River, which continues to be good quality with no concerns for fish populations or aquatic life.
  • North Carolina already initiated an enforcement action against the Sutton plant, and that process is not complete. “We believe these critics are premature in their filing and will not successfully maintain this separate citizen suit,” said the Duke statement.
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.