RALEIGH — Conservation groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the state Environmental Management Commission, Duke Energy and Progress Energy seeking the cleanup or shut-down of 14 ash pits that collect tons of waste from coal-burning power plants across the state.
The groups – Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance – are challenging a ruling in December by the Environmental Management Commission.
In a 9-2 ruling, the commission said Duke and Progress ash pits were subject to less stringent regulations than conservation groups contended and were not out of compliance with groundwater contamination standards.
The ruling was lauded by the utilities, as well as the politically powerful N.C. Chamber of Commerce, the N.C. League of Municipalities and the city of Raleigh, which feared more sweeping implications for hog waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites, underground storage sites and dry-cleaning solvent sites.
The environmental groups said then they would appeal, and the complaint filed Tuesday in Wake County Superior Court was their next step.
“Twenty years ago, North Carolina required utilities to take immediate action to stop groundwater contamination from these outdated facilities,” DJ Gerken, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the conservationists, said in a statement. “Thanks to the state’s misapplication of its own laws, we’re still waiting for these polluters to stop and clean up known contamination of groundwater from their old industrial operations.”
The conservation groups contend that such dangerous substances as arsenic and thallium contaminate the groundwater. They further argue that monitoring by Progress Energy, now a subsidiary of Duke Energy, shows persistent contamination of groundwater at the company’s Asheville and L.V. Sutton facilities’ coal ash ponds near the French Broad and Cape Fear rivers. Sampling at 12 other coal-fired plants, the litigants contend, show contamination, too.
“The practice of dumping toxic coal ash into unlined holes in the ground that pollute our groundwater and rivers needs to stop,” French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said in a statement. “The French Broad River is a world-class recreation destination, and we no longer want to see it used as a dumping ground for toxic coal ash.”
Arsenic levels exceeded state groundwater standards at the Sutton plant on the Cape Fear River, according to the lawsuit, and epidemiological studies have suggested a correlation between chronic consumption of water contaminated with arsenic and the incidence of cancer and other health problems.
Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said in a statement that iron and manganese compose the vast majority of the contaminants in the groundwater, arguing that both influence the taste and odor of drinking water but pose no substantial health risk. The power company has invested millions of dollars, according to Culbert, converting to dry fly ash storage in lined landfills at large stations in North Carolina. The company plans to work with state regulators to close ash basins at smaller coal stations that have either closed or will close soon.
Culbert said Duke Energy believes the environmental groups are proposing rule changes that should be considered through a process that would provide for public notice and comment.
“Groundwater standards and the concept of compliance boundaries apply to many sources in addition to the electric utility industry, and public participation should not be circumvented.” Culbert said.