Complaint seeks cleanup of coal ash groundwater contamination across North Carolina

Conservation groups have filed a complaint asking the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to require cleanup of groundwater contamination seeping from unlined coal ash storage ponds at 14 power plants across the state.

The plants are operated by Duke Energy and Progress Energy, which was recently bought by Duke Energy. The waste left over after burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains heavy metals, radioactive elements and other toxic substances that can be be harmful to human health and the environment.

"It's irresponsible to North Carolina's families that utilities know coal ash slurry is seeping poisons into groundwater and rivers without cleaning it up," said DJ Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which filed the request for a declaratory ruling on Oct. 10 on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has documented that contaminants from the massive coal ash storage ponds have seeped into groundwater, but it has failed to require cleanup of the sites. Among the contaminants found at levels exceeding state standards are arsenic, which is known to cause cancer, and thallium, a suspected carcinogen that's been used as rat poison, along with boron, sulfate, nickel, iron, chromium, manganese and selenium.

The groundwater contamination has occurred at the following plants:

* Asheville Power Station in Arden, N.C. near the French Broad River and Lake Julian in Buncombe County;
* Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. near the Catawba River and Lake Wylie in Gaston County;
* Belews Creek Steam Station in Belews Creek, N.C. near the Dan River and Belews Lake in Stokes County;
* Buck Steam Station in Spencer, N.C. near the Yadkin River in Rowan County;
* Cape Fear Power Station in Moncure, N.C. near the Cape Fear River in Chatham County;
* Cliffside Steam Station in Mooresboro, N.C. near the Broad River on the Cleveland and Rutherford County line;
* Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. near the Dan River in Rockingham County;
* L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington, N.C. near Lake Sutton and the Cape Fear River in New Hanover County;
* Lee Power Station in Goldsboro, N.C. near the Neuse River in Wayne County;
* Marshall Steam Station in Terrell, N.C. near the Catawba River and Lake Norman in Catawba County;
* Mayo Power Station in Roxboro, N.C. near Mayo Creek, Mayo Reservoir, Crutchfield Creek and Roanoke Basin in Person County;
* Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C. near the Catawba River and Mountain Island Lake in Gaston County;
* Roxboro Power Station in Semora, N.C. near the Hyco River, Hyco Lake and Sargent's Creek in Caswell and Person counties; and
* W.H. Weatherspoon Power Station in Lumberton, N.C. near Jacob Swamp and Lumber River in Robeson County.

Examining the monitoring data for the plants' ash ponds, the Waterkeeper Alliance found 681 exceedances of the state groundwater standard for contaminants. Levels of arsenic in groundwater near the Sutton plant on the Cape Fear River just half a mile from drinking water wells were 27 times higher than state standards, yet the utilities have taken no action to clean up the contamination.

"The risk to human health is too great to ignore any longer," said Kemp Burdette (at right in photo), Cape Fear Riverkeeper at the Cape Fear River Watch.

In North Carolina, groundwater contamination is governed by an EMC rule known as the "2L Rule" that establishes standards and procedures for "corrective action," which requires a polluter to stop ongoing sources of contamination and to restore groundwater contaminated by those sources. In its complaint, SELC says DENR has failed to act due to mistaken interpretation of the 2L Rule and asks the EMC to clarify that the 2L Rule applies to the state's coal ash ponds.

Regulation of coal ash waste landed in the public spotlight following the December 2008 collapse of a coal ash holding pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee released 1 billion gallons of the waste into a residential community and two nearby rivers.

The federal government does not currently regulate coal ash waste, instead leaving oversight up to an uneven and inadequate patchwork of state rules. While the Environmental Protection Agency has considered imposing stricter regulations, that effort has been blocked amid opposition from politically powerful utilities.

(Photo of Waterkeepers Donna Lisenby and Kemp Burdette testing water on the Cape Fear River below the Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, N.C. by Dot Griffith via Waterkeeper Alliance.)