Point of View

Coal ash pollution threatening Neuse River

July 28, 2013 

Recently, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources shut North Carolinians out of the coal ash permitting process by denying a public hearing on a permit for unlined, leaking coal ash lagoons on the banks of the Neuse River.

Coal ash pollution has become an especially critical issue in North Carolina lately: Several enforcement actions have been filed against Duke Energy Progress in recent months, and the state will be making decisions soon about whether to allow Duke Energy Progress to permanently leave decades’ worth of toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking lagoons around the state as older facilities transition to natural gas or shut down. So it’s especially troubling that DENR has chosen to shut the public out of the critical decisions that affect the health of our rivers and our drinking water.

The H.F. Lee Steam Electric Plant’s coal ash lagoons are located just feet from the Neuse River and less than 10 miles upstream from Goldsboro’s drinking water intake.

This plant has a history of groundwater contamination by coal ash pollutants that cause grave health effects.

For years, chemicals such as arsenic, boron, chromium and manganese have exceeded the applicable limits at the facility’s “compliance boundary,” at its property line and along the banks of the Neuse River. Public records indicate that the contamination is flowing into the river without any controls or monitoring.

Under the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit system regulates pollution discharges by facilities like coal ash lagoons.

But while an NPDES permit is supposed to include the best available technology for controlling this pollution, the state’s draft permit says the best technology for the Lee facility is an unlined, leaking hole in the ground.

That’s an absurd, and dangerous, conclusion. Leaking coal ash lagoons not only pollute continuously – they can also collapse with catastrophic results, as we learned with the 2008 Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee.

The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation and others requested a public hearing on the draft permit for the Lee facility because of the importance of these issues and to ensure that the public could ask questions, make comments, and gather all the information it needed to participate fully in deciding the fate of the Lee coal ash lagoons and the Neuse River.

Unfortunately, DENR dismissed our concerns, saying nothing will be done about this contamination until at least 2015. Waiting at least two years to address known, illegal pollution is appalling.

North Carolina and Duke Energy Progress need to take a proactive, not reactive, approach to the protection of our environment and drinking water.

To add insult to injury, lawmakers have proposed legislation, House Bill 94, with a section that would have the effect of removing any obligation for polluters to address contamination until after it has reached a neighbor’s property.

At the Lee plant, this would mean moving the so-called “compliance boundary” 600 feet to Old Smithfield Road, where houses and farm fields dot the landscape. That would be a big step in the wrong direction, and a further free pass for Duke Energy Progress to continue polluting.

So why was the public not granted a hearing dealing with documented pollution of our public water?

The Division of Water Quality’s public calendar shows that since its new director arrived, DENR has held only one public hearing on any NPDES permit. That simply isn’t good enough.

It is imperative that all of us who swim, fish and get our drinking water from the Neuse have a say in what Duke Energy Progress is allowed to dump into our river.

DENR’s handling of this issue has made it clear that without pressure from the public, Duke Energy Progress isn’t likely to clean up its coal ash, protect our groundwater and remove the threat of catastrophic dam failure.

DENR’s bad decision should only redouble the efforts of everyone concerned with clean water and healthy rivers to make our voices heard.

Matthew Starr is the riverkeeper of the Upper Neuse River.

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