Lawsuit Duke Energy toxic Catawba River coal ash mountain lake - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

Riverkeeper: Duke Energy allowing toxic leaks into Catawba River

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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) -

The Catawba Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center announced Tuesday that they are planning on suing Duke Energy for violating the Clean Water Act.

The Riverkeeper and SELC say Duke Energy's coal ash lagoons have leaked into Mountain Island Lake at unsafe levels, according to a news release from the Catawba Riverkeeper and SELC.

The lake is a source of drinking water for the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The Catawba Riverkeeper monitors several sites in the area of the coal ponds, which sits beside the old coal plant on the lake.

Duke operates the Riverbend facility, a coal-fired power plant, on Mountain Island Lake on the Catawba River in Gaston County, near Charlotte. 

The facility includes two unlined coal ash lagoons containing millions of tons of coal ash, and they stick out into Mountain Island Lake.  The millions of tons of coal ash are separated from the drinking water reservoir only by an 80-foot tall earthen berm, which is leaking, according to the release from the Riverkeeper.

The Riverkeeper and SELC say Duke Energy is illegally discharging polluted water into the lake. The coal ash contains toxic substances, the coal ash lagoons are unlined, and they leak from many places into Mountain Island Lake, according to the release. The unlined lagoons have contaminated the groundwater at the site, which also flows into Mountain Island Lake. The pollution includes arsenic, cobalt, boron, barium, strontium, manganese, zinc, and iron, according to the Riverkeeper's findings.

Duke Energy responded to the lawsuit on Tuesday in a statement: "We are reviewing today's notice. We agree Mountain Island Lake is a critical resource for our region, and Duke Energy has been monitoring water quality there since 1953. We consistently find that water quality is good, fish are healthy and drinking water supplies are safe."

Duke has announced plans to close its Riverbend facility.

Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at SELC, said: "Duke should not be storing toxic coal ash in unlined lagoons beside Charlotte's drinking water reservoir.  If there was ever a place where it is irresponsible to store coal ash, this is it.  Duke should remove its toxic ash to a lined landfill away from drinking water and remove pollutants from the groundwater."

The notice was also sent to the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources and to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  If Duke does not take appropriate action to stop its pollution within 60 days, SELC and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation will file suit in federal court to stop the pollution.

Rick Gaskins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, said: "The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is committed to protect the Catawba River and the drinking water of the Charlotte area.  It is long past time that Duke moved its coal ash away from Mountain Island Lake and stopped discharging toxic substances into Charlotte's drinking water reservoir."

Last week, NC DENR determined that Progress Energy, Duke's sister company, is violating state and federal law because of illegal discharges from coal ash lagoons at its Skyland facility near Asheville. NC DENR made those findings in response to a notice sent to Progress by the Southern Environmental Law Center, also under the Clean Water Act.

Frank Holleman said:  "Duke has wrongly been telling the community that it is complying with the environmental laws. In fact, Duke is violating state and federal law by polluting the reservoir from which Charlotte gets its drinking water. It is time that Duke told the Charlotte area the truth and cleaned up the toxic mess it has made on the banks of Mountain Island Lake."

Testing by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation indicates that Duke is discharging arsenic into Mountain Island Lake in concentrations at least twice the applicable standard, cobalt at 52 times the standard, manganese at 128 times the standard, and iron at 27 times the standard, according to the release.

This contradicts Duke's own findings.

"Seepage is normal and necessary for an earthen dam's structural integrity. We have routinely informed the state of the seepage occurring at the toe of our ash dams. The volume of seepage is extremely small and has no impact to the overall water quality in the lake," the company said in its statement. "We monitor groundwater around the Riverbend ash basins and report that data to state regulators. We find elevated levels of iron, manganese and low pH,  which pose no health risk. Arsenic levels in Mountain Island Lake are at the lowest amounts laboratory instruments can accurately measure just a short distance from the plant."
  
The substances discharged by Duke into Mountain Island Lake are well known pollutants, according to the Riverkeeper. 

Arsenic is a known carcinogen that causes multiple forms of cancer in humans. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that cobalt is possibly carcinogenic to humans. 

Manganese is known to be toxic to the nervous system.  Manganese concentrations greater than 50 ug/L render water unusable by discoloring the water, giving it a metallic taste, and causing black staining.

Iron can render water unusable by imparting a rusty color and a metallic taste and causing sedimentation and staining.  Oral exposure to boron has led to developmental and reproductive toxicity in multiple species. Barium can cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscular weakness. Concurrent exposure to multiple contaminants may intensify existing effects of individual contaminants, or may give rise to interactions and synergies that create new effects. 

A similar suit by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and SELC against South Carolina utility SCE&G 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.

Duke already responded to how they will handle managing the ash basins once the Riverbend facility closes.

"We plan to close the ash basins once they are no longer needed, in close coordination with state regulators. We are evaluating multiple closure options to ensure we select methods that provide high water quality protection, while balancing the many interests of our customers," Duke said in a statement. "The ash basins provide an important stormwater management function for the site and will need to continue operating for a limited time after the plant retires. We will submit a closure plan one year prior to ash basin closure as required by NCDENR."

Our responsibility does not end once the plant retires. Even once the ash basins are closed, Duke Energy will continue monitoring groundwater there for many years and will continue to manage and steward the site."

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