A recently shuttered coal plant sits on the Catawba River in Gaston County, and state environmental officials say it’s seeping heavy metals precariously close to Charlotte’s water supply. This week, the N.C. Division of Water Quality added that coal plant to a lawsuit against Duke Energy—the plant’s owner. The state has had evidence of violations for two years, but declined to act until recently.
When power plants burn coal, it creates a byproduct called coal ash. Plants, including Duke’s Riverbend Steam Station, commonly mix this ash with water and store it in “ash ponds.”
The ash contains heavy metals and other contaminants, but some of it is legally allowed to flow into the Catawba from a set point. And, the state’s long been aware of seepage—contamination trickling outside an ash pond’s boundaries.
“It turns all kinds of bright colors, like orange and red,” says Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba River Foundation. “So you see these gigantic orange and red seepages coming out of the banks around the coal ash pond.”
Gaskins’ organization is opposed to that. In December, his and other groups demanded the state clamp down on seepages. The state’s Division of Water Quality said it did not have the authority, and asked the Environmental Management Commission to vote on it. It did, and agreed with DWQ by a vote of 9-2.
“Coal ash ponds, to the extent that they involve the question of groundwater pollution can continue as they presently operate,” Chairman Steve Smith summarized the ruling.
Now, just five months later, the division is suing Duke Energy for groundwater pollution. The lawsuit alleges “unpermitted seeps” and “violations of the groundwater standards.” And, the state says it has documentation—dating back two years—of contaminants exceeding their legal limits.
So, if the Division of Water Quality knew about contamination, why didn’t regulators act sooner?
Spokeswoman Susan Massengale provided only this comment, citing legal reasons: “We determined that the legal tools—injunctive relief—had allowed DWQ to focus on the processes needed to address the issues better than other tools available to us.”
But, why did they suddenly decide to address the issues? It may have been to pre-empt a private lawsuit. Those same environmental organizations that appeared at the December commission meeting have won suits requiring ash ponds be cleaned up, and they were planning to sue Duke later this month. The state is primarily requesting a halt to activities while studies are done.
Duke was also careful not to comment on the case, but says there is no threat from the seepages.
“The lake water is treated prior to consumption and so there’s no health risk whatsoever and so there’s no health risk to folks from a drinking water perspective,” says spokeswoman Lisa Hoffman.
Environmental organizations disagree. The Catawba Riverkeeper’s Rick Gaskins points to a recent Duke University study that shows periodic spikes in arsenic in the reservoir, spikes that exceed federal standards.