Torrential rain raises concerns at Duke Energy coal ash dams

Duke Energy's Belews Creek plant north of Winston-Salem is one of two North Carolina power plants where problems arose during recent heavy rains with dams holding back coal ash. Both of the plants' impoundments are considered high hazard, meaning a breach could potentially kill people. (Photo of the Belews Creek Steam Station by Duke Energy via Flickr.)

As record-breaking rains deluged the Carolinas over the weekend, N.C. environmental officials responded to reports of problems at Duke Energy dams holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash from heavily populated areas. One was at its Belews Creek plant northeast of Winston-Salem on a tributary of the Dan River, and the other at its Marshall plant on Lake Norman, which supplies drinking water for parts of Charlotte and other nearby communities.

Here's how the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality described the concerns in a press release issued Sunday:

In the first incident, Duke Energy reported Saturday afternoon that clear water was coming from a 1-inch seepage at an embankment on the dam at the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County. State Dam Safety officials in the agency's Winston-Salem offices responded quickly to the site after receiving the reports on Saturday. The water seeping was clear and does not appear to be from the coal ash facility. Officials determined there is no threat to the integrity of the dam. DEQ and Duke Energy officials are continuing to monitor the site and there have been no changes today.  

In the second incident, Duke Energy reported Saturday afternoon that a sinkhole had formed at the base of the dam at the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. The sinkhole was on the side slope of a roadside ditch near the dam. Duke Energy responded by excavating the site, placing a liner in the hole and then filling the sink hole with crushed stone. State Dam Safety officials responded quickly after they were notified, and reported that there appears to be no threat to the dam. Dam Safety officials continue to monitor the site and are receiving updates from Duke Energy. No changes have been reported today.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated both the Belews Creek and Marshall coal ash impoundments as "high hazard," meaning a dam failure would be expected to cause loss of human life. The Belews Creek impoundment covers 342 acres and holds about 12.5 million tons of coal ash. The Marshall impoundment is the state's largest, holding about 20 million tons of coal ash. Both impoundments are unlined and leaking pollution to groundwater, as are all 14 of Duke's coal ash impoundments in North Carolina.

The impact of heavy rains on dams at coal ash impoundments is a real concern: Intense rains were a factor in the 2008 collapse of a coal ash dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee. One of the worst environmental disasters ever in the U.S., the Kingston spill sent a billion gallons of coal ash into a residential community and the Clinch and Emory rivers.

The rain-related concerns reported at the Duke Energy's coal ash dams came just days after the company reached a controversial settlement with the state over its widespread coal ash pollution. Last week, DEQ agreed to dismiss a $25.1 million fine against the company and drop its case over contaminated groundwater at Duke's Sutton plant near Wilmington. In exchange, Duke will pay the state $7 million, which will go into a fund for public schools.

The settlement drew widespread criticism, with the News & Observer of Raleigh blasting it as a "sweet deal." Environmental advocates were also upset by the terms.

"In another typical move, DEQ is cutting Duke Energy a break and failing to demand action," Amy Adams, a former agency staffer who now works with Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement. "The state is not only backing off the original record fine and settling for a mere $500,000 per site, it's also agreeing to limit its ability to seek enforcement of any past, present or future contamination at any of the sites."

Earlier this year, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act over its widespread coal ash pollution, including violations related to its February 2014 spill of coal ash into the Dan River from its shuttered Dan River Steam Station. In that case, the company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and environmental fees.

As part of the company's five-year probation, the U.S. Justice Department is also requiring it to maintain a toll-free number to receive information on potential environmental violations and log and investigate any reported concerns. "Residents near Duke plants nationwide should not hesitate to assist the Department by airing their concerns about ash dumps, drinking water contamination and air quality," writes Lisa Evans with the environmental group Earthjustice.

People living near Duke's coal ash ponds might want to keep that number handy: 855-355-7042. Problems can also be reported online at The hotline and website are operated by a third-party provider.