State environmental agency sues Progress over toxins in French Broad River

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2013 

North Carolina’s environmental agency on Friday sued Progress Energy in a move to force the electric utility to stop leaking toxins into the French Broad River near Asheville.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked a Wake County Superior Court judge to order Raleigh-based Progress to stop polluting the French Broad and also to prepare a report on the consequence of Thallium releases into the river.

Thallium is a highly toxic element that can cause hair loss, nerve damage and death in humans; it was formerly used to make rat poison. In addition, the ash pits have seeped boron, chloride, selenium, sulfate, iron and manganese, the state agency said.

The toxic discharges come from a pair of coal ash lagoons Progress maintains at its Asheville Steam Station power plant. Progress has acknowledged the ash pits drain 113,000 gallons of water a day, and environmental advocates estimate the facilities have contaminated drinking water for at least three decades.

Progress Energy’s “continued operation of the Asheville Plant in violation of the groundwater standards ... poses a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of the State of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the State,” the environmental agency wrote in its court filing.

DENR’s filing comes two months after three North Carolina nonprofits threatened to sue Progress for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The organizations could still proceed with their suit but for the time being they will monitor DENR’s case, according to their Chapel Hill law firm, the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Progress, a subsidiary of Charlotte-based Duke Energy, has 120 days to assess the cause and extent of the contamination, including a specific analysis of Thallium.

Duke denied that it is violating federal clean water standards.

“We are reviewing today’s filing and believe we have diligently complied with the plant’s environmental permit,” Duke said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to resolve these issues with the state, which is responsible for safeguarding our lakes and rivers.”

According to DENR, the toxic discharge comes from two sources: surface-level seepage from the ash lagoons, and from groundwater contamination under the ash pits. Both feed into tributaries and drain into the French Broad River.

It’s not clear if the toxins are concentrated enough to cause environmental damage.

Coal ash pits have been targeted for years by environmental advocates as dangerous sources of pollution.

Progress built the ash pits, which cover 91 acres, in 1964 and 1982. In 2009, in response to public pressure about ash pit safety, DENR required Progress to install monitoring wells at the ash pits. The requirement for the monitoring wells set up a potential showdown between Progress and DENR.

But if DENR hadn’t acted, the wells would have aided the case being readied by the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

The environmental groups used the Progress well monitoring data, as well as independent sampling of water runoff by the French Broad Riverkeeper organization, to prepare their legal action against Progress.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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