Local News
7:24 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

State: Duke Pumped Coal Ash Water Into Cape Fear Tributary

While a broken pipe was spilling at least 30,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, Duke crews were pumping coal ash wastewater into another river—the Cape Fear. Environmental officials accuse Duke of violating its permit and hiding information from regulators. Environmental groups blame the regulators.


An environmental group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, took aerial photos of Duke Energy pumping water from an ash pond into a tributary of the Cape Fear River (bottom left).
Credit Waterkeeper Alliance

Regulators say that Duke pumped 61 million gallons of water from ponds at its retired Cape Fear coal plant, which contain the leftover ash from burnt coal, more than double the amount that spilled from the Dan River ash pond, although minus the additional 30,000 tons of solid coal ash.

Duke has said the pumping was part of routine maintenance, but officials from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources disagree.

“The pumping activities ongoing at this plant far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance,” says DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer.

Regulators discovered both ash ponds were several feet below their regular levels, during an inspection last week following the Dan River spill. The pond level is supposed to be high enough that the heavy ash can sink to the bottom, and less polluted water is discharged into a tributary that flows into the Cape Fear River. But with water in the pond so low, spokeswoman Susan Massengale says the state environmental agency is concerned about what’s discharging.

“They pumped it down to the point where it is not functioning as it should, and [not] allowing the proper separation,” says Massengale.

DENR reports drinking water downriver of the plant, which is filtered, has not turned up any problems.  Regulators are taking samples of the river water. The agency has issued Duke a notice of violation, which could result in fines. The company did not immediately comment on that notice. But for environmental groups, the Cape Fear incident is another display of lackadaisical oversight by regulators.

“This is completely outrageous. The public has had enough of this,” says Pete Harrison, the staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance

Since the Dan River spill, state regulators have issued violations at seven different coal plants. Reports of leaky pipes and unpermitted wastewater discharges have become a near- weekly occurrence. But Harrison and other environmentalists contend the state has only taken actions after pressure following the Dan River spill.

“It’s only when citizens take action and force the state to do its job, will it actually at least go through a charade of regulatory oversight when it comes to Duke Energy,” Harrison says. (11.5s)

DENR is suing Duke for seepages from its ash ponds into groundwater. It touts the action as the first in the nation. Environmental groups argue the state intervened just in time to block them from suing, and the state quickly tried to settle its first suit by requiring further testing and a less than $100,000 fine. That settlement is on hold, after the Dan River spill. The state must decide whether to reinstate the proposed settlement

The pumping at the Cape Fear plant demonstrates the on-going tension between Duke and environmental groups. The Waterkeeper Alliance took photos of it last week, a day before the state says its regulators discovered it. But, Massengale denies the environmental group had a hand.

“To some degree, you can say coincidence. To some degree you can say the spill at the Dan River site has heightened every one’s awareness, so you have more eyes out there on these things anyhow. (13s)

The state previously inspected the Cape Fear ash ponds in December. Spokesmen say a regulator spotted pump, but it was disconnected, and Duke failed to mention its ongoing operation.

Duke has 30 days to respond to the notice of violation.

Crack in ash pond dam

Duke Energy reported to regulators on Thursday that a horizontal crack had formed in an earthen dam that walls in coal ash at the Cape Fear Plant.
Credit N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources

Regulators reported another incident hours after the announcement of the improper pumping. State regulators reported that Duke Energy now has notified them of a crack in the Cape Fear ash ponds. A spokeswoman for the state says the crack formed in a dam that walls in water in one of the two ponds. It runs 60 feet across and up to six inches wide. In their initial examination, regulators say no water is leaking from the ponds through the crack, and the structure does not appear to be in imminent danger of failure. The Cape Fear ash ponds have a “high hazard” rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning a failure would cause significant environmental damage. An inspection in 2009 rated the dam condition “poor”—one of two sites to receive that rating in the state.