North Carolina leads the nation in the number of toxic ash waste pits at coal-burning power plants, according to a new report by a coalition of environmental groups.
The state is home to at least six coal ash pits that store dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, according to the report issued today by Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project. Only Pennsylvania has as many sites with dangerous accumulations of waste from coal-burning power plants, the report said.
The groups are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step up enforcement at the sites, which have operated for decades out of public eye until a massive spill in December 2008 released tons of toxic sludge in Tennessee.
"The EPA has never gone out and actively investigate these sites," said Jeff Stant, director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative at the Environmental Integrity Project. "The delay is unconscionable when there's this much data showing this much damage."
The EPA is working on new oversight standards that have not yet been released to the public for comment. The EPA had previously identified 70 sites with dangerous levels of contamination, but the environmental groups today added 31 other sites to that list, including six in this state.
The North Carolina portion of the report was compiled by the Watauga Riverkeeper team within Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization in Boone. The analysis is based on data reported to state environmental regulators by Duke Energy and Progress Energy, which together operate 13 coal ash pits in the state.
One of the shortcomings of the report is that it's based on incomplete information, said Donna Marie Lisenby, the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper. Most of the coal ash pits in this state lack sufficient wells to accurately measure groundwater contamination, she said.
For example, the site with the worst contamination readings is at Progress Energy's Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington. The site shows arsenic contamination measured as high as 29 times above federal standards, according to the report.
Other sites with dangerous levels include Progress Energy's Lee Steam Plant in Goldsboro, Cape Fear Steam Plant in Moncure in Chatham County, Asheville Steam Electric Plant in Buncombe County and Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County.
But Lisenby said Sutton is the only coal ash site that has wells along the perimeter, which allows for measuring the spread of the contamination. The wells show that contamination at Sutton is spreading beyond the site, Lisenby said, but that is also possible for other sites.
In this state, the Division of Water Quality is moving ahead with plans to monitor groundwater quality at the sites. The division this month asked power companies to propose locations for new wells to expand site monitoring at four ash pits.
Last year the EPA reviewed 43 ash pits around the country and gave "poor" ratings to five Progress Energy pits in Chatham County and one in Asheville. The EPA wants Progress to analyze the sites for structural stability and make other fixes.
The EPA's analysis focused on structural integrity, while today's report looks at the risk of structurally sound pits leaching toxins into the environment.
"They're a dual threat: There's the danger of dam failure," Lisenby said. "The second risk is the toxicity leaking heavy metals into rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater."