CHARLOTTE — State regulators under pressure from environmental groups added Duke Energy’s Riverbend power plant, perched above Charlotte’s water supply, to a lawsuit over coal ash pollution.
The N.C. Division of Water Quality filing Tuesday said contamination from coal ash lagoons at Mountain Island Lake, if not addressed, “poses a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state.”
The division acted days before the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center were set to sue Duke independently, following a 60-day notice the groups filed in March.
The Catawba Riverkeeper has reported seepage containing arsenic, an ash component that can cause cancer, from Riverbend’s two ash lagoons into Mountain Island Lake. Groundwater near lagoons at Riverbend and 13 other Duke plants in North Carolina has also been contaminated, although natural sources may be partly responsible.
“I think it’s clear the only reason the state has taken action in either case is because we have taken action,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the law center. “The state has been aware of the leaks, as well as the groundwater pollution, for years.”
Duke contends the seepage from Riverbend, which closed April 1, is normal and has no effect on the lake’s overall good water quality.
“We are reviewing the filing and believe we have diligently complied with Riverbend’s water discharge permit,” Duke said in a statement. “We appreciate the state’s desire to obtain as much information as possible related to discharges to Mountain Island Lake and groundwater, and we expect to work closely with them on this matter.”
Last year the Catawba Riverkeeper and law center settled a lawsuit against S.C. Electric & Gas in which the utility agreed to remove 2.4 million tons of ash from unlined lagoons, similar to Riverbend’s, at the Wateree Station power plant near Columbia.
“The first thing you need to do with any environmental problem is stop the source of the contamination – line these ponds so they don’t continue to seep into the lake, or remove them,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Rick Gaskins. “The step after that is cleaning up the contamination.”
The law center and three other environmental groups had also filed notice they would sue a Duke subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, over similar ash-contamination claims at an Asheville power plant.
State officials instead stepped in, filing a lawsuit in March seeking an injunction to force Duke to stop any Asheville contamination and assess its extent. The state action filed Tuesday amends that litigation to include Riverbend.
The litigation marks the first time the state has taken legal action against a utility over its handling of ash, which contains toxic elements.
Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the state acted after its inspections found seepage from ash lagoons at the two plants. In both cases, environmental groups had already reported the seeps but the state had taken no enforcement action.
“We decided that rose to the level of a permit violation,” Kritzer said. “Based on what happened in Asheville, we decided we needed to look at coal ash impoundments with a similar structure. This action (Tuesday) is an outgrowth of that.”
State officials will continue to look at other coal ash lagoons, Kritzer said.
“We certainly didn’t do this based on those environmental groups, but we knew it was definitely on our constituents’ minds,” he said.
Tuesday’s legal filing recounts “unpermitted” seepage from Riverbend’s ash ponds and groundwater contaminated by iron and manganese, both of which occur naturally.
Mecklenburg County and Duke University scientists have previously detected arsenic in the water and sediment at Mountain Island Lake. Despite that, local officials say drinking water from the lake that serves more than 750,000 people is safe.
‘Long-term water protection’
A larger question extends into the future – what to do with the 2.7 million tons of ash at Riverbend now that the plant has retired.
“We feel like we’re at a decision point,” said Gaskins, the riverkeeper. “We’d like to see these ash ponds dug up and the source of the contamination removed from the banks of the drinking water source.”
Duke has said it favors keeping the ash in place, covering it with a cap to keep rain from leaching contaminants into groundwater and monitoring it indefinitely.
“We will have a high focus on long-term water protection,” said Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert. “We’re evaluating a number of different closure options, and certainly we will be taking those unique characteristics into consideration at Riverbend.”
Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender