Today, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed motions to allow seven local conservation groups to participate in state court enforcement actions against Duke Energy’s illegal coal ash pollution throughout North Carolina.  The motion was filed on behalf of groups dedicated to protecting public waters across North Carolina, from the Broad River in the west to the Cape Fear at the coast.

In the wake of the terrible coal chemical spill in West Virginia that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people, the groups want a say in how the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) handles Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution of lakes and rivers, including drinking water reservoirs, as well as pollution of groundwater that supplies drinking water for individuals and local communities. 

“Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution is threatening rivers, lakes, and drinking water in every part of North Carolina,” said Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Local groups from around the state have come together to help ensure that DENR and Duke Energy take meaningful action to clean up Duke Energy’s illegal coal ash pollution across the state.”  

The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, Cape Fear Riverkeeper with Cape Fear River Watch, French Broad Riverkeeper with Western North Carolina Alliance, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper with Winyah Rivers Foundation, Waterkeeper Alliance and Appalachian Voices seek to stop and clean up unpermitted streams of contaminated surface water discharging from many of Duke Energy’s coal ash lagoons, as well as persistent groundwater pollution leaching from these unlined impoundments.  

For example, the Lee facility on the banks of the Neuse River near Goldsboro has groundwater concentrations of arsenic as high as 665 parts per billion, more than 60 times the North Carolina standard, near neighboring residential areas. Other sites have a long legacy of illegal, unpermitted coal ash discharges, including at Belews Lake where selenium from coal ash killed off nearly all the lake’s fish in the 1980s, and problems persist today. 

“With DENR’s declared mission of ‘customer service’ to its polluter permittees, groups like ours, that are dedicated to protecting our lakes and rivers for recreation and drinking water, need a voice in this process,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. 

Last year, DENR filed enforcement actions against Duke Energy for its coal ash pollution at its Asheville and Riverbend facilities after local conservation groups announced their intent to take private legal action.  When conservation groups sent another notice of intent to sue over pollution at the Sutton facility near Wilmington, DENR filed its own actions for Duke Energy’s other 12 coal ash sites around North Carolina.  DENR and Duke Energy have already proposed a settlement of the Asheville and Riverbend cases that does not require Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution, and almost 5,000 citizens and organizations submitted comments opposed to the settlement.  The court has not yet decided whether to accept the proposed settlement. 

“The two South Carolina utilities, SCE&G and Santee Cooper, have agreed to clean up 11 million tons of unlined toxic coal ash ponds in SC. Why should the people of NC expect any less from Duke Energy when it comes to public health and clean water?  Duke Energy needs to show real leadership to protect public health, like utility companies have done in SC,” according to Naujoks. 

“South Carolina is busy cleaning up its coal ash problem. It’s time for North Carolina to catch up,” said Christine Ellis Waccamaw Riverkeeper of the Winyah Rivers Foundation.  

Winyah Rivers Alliance, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, recently obtained a settlement under which South Carolina utility Santee Cooper will remove all of its coal ash from unlined lagoons on the banks of the Waccamaw River. Facing similar liability at two other coal ash sites, the utility announced plans to remove all of its coal ash from those sites as well, for a total of 11 million tons of coal ash to be recycled or moved to dry storage in lined landfills.  An earlier suit by Charlotte’s Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation resulted in the cleanup of 2.4 million tons of coal ash by South Carolina utility SCE&G. 

Naujoks added, “All three coal ash ponds at the Buck Steam Station are on EPA’s list of 44 High Hazard Coal Ash Ponds and according to the state, they are discharging through numerous unpermitted flows, seeps and leaks, including engineered discharges from the toe-drains of its ash basin and ash settling ponds, contaminates that flow directly into High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River. Duke Energy is violating the federal Clean Water Act and threatening public health and safety. It is time that they comply with the law and clean up their toxic coal ash ponds.” 

The North Carolina court has previously allowed several other Riverkeeper organizations to intervene with respect to the Riverbend coal ash site on Mountain Island Lake, north of Charlotte; the Allen and Marshall sites, also near Charlotte, on Lakes Wylie and Norman along the Catawba River; and the Sutton site near Wilmington on the Cape Fear River.  Today’s intervention motion asks for the same action for the additional sites represented by the seven conservation groups. 

Public Forum

Think Outside the Sink: Threats & Strategies for High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River is a public forum that will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 PM on January 27 at Catawba College Center for the Environment, 2300 W Innes St, Salisbury, NC 28144 

Yadkin Riverkeeper, in partnership with Catawba College Center for the Environment, will host a public forum will provide information on the impact of excess nutrients plus impact of coal ash from the Buck Steam Plant on High Rock Lake. More than 730,000 people use the Yadkin River for drinking water. High Rock Lake is North Carolina’s second largest reservoir, a major recreation area for swimming, fishing, kayaking, waterskiing and jet skiing. 

The public is encouraged to attend, listen, learn and comment. The forum will feature experts in the field, including Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, Professor of Applied Aquatic Ecology, NC State University, and Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. 

Additional Background

The two South Carolina utilities are SCE&G and Santee Cooper. SCE&G was sued by the Catawba Riverkeeper and agreed in 2012 to clean up all 2.4 million tons of coal ash at its Wateree Station site south of Columbia. In 2013, Santee Cooper agreed to clean up 1.3 million tons of coal ash from its Grainger site in Conway, SC, on the banks of the Waccamaw River. Facing similar liability at two other sites, it decided to clean up additional unlined coal ash, for a total of 11 million tons. It will be recycled and/or stored in a dry state in lined landfills away from rivers and wetlands. 

“While South Carolina is making big progress, NC is digging in and trying to shield the polluting utility,” commented Naujoks, “with a proposed settlement of the Asheville and Riverbend enforcement actions that would require no cleanup. Almost 5,000 people submitted comments on the NC proposed settlement.” 

The Buck Steam Plant site, located on High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River, contains three active coal ash ponds with a total size of 134 acres.  The ash lagoons are unlined, and the ash in the lagoons is stored in a wet condition. The berms at the Buck Steam Station are classified by the North Carolina Utilities Commission as “high hazard” because of potential environmental damage in the event of failure.  The berms at the primary ash pond were given a “Significant” hazard potential rating by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) due to the potential for economic and environmental losses due to a spill, and the secondary pond was given a “High” hazard potential rating.  In addition, all three coal ash ponds at the Buck Steam Station are on EPA’s list of 44 High Hazard Coal Ash Ponds.  The Buck facility is adjacent to the Yadkin River, in the Lower Yadkin Sub Basin, and the coal ash ponds abut backwater channels to the Yadkin River.  The dikes or berms for the lagoons at the Buck facility are discharging through numerous unpermitted flows, seeps, leaks, and channels, including engineered discharges from the toe-drains of its ash basin and ash settling ponds, into High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River. Groundwater contamination at Buck includes boron at almost twice the state standard, as well as manganese at 23x the standard (it can affect the nervous system at high levels) and high levels of iron (10x) as well.