State environmental regulators are investigating whether Duke Energy has been pumping toxic coal-ash wastewater into the Cape Fear River in Chatham County.
Officials with the Charlotte-based utility deny any wrongdoing and say workers have been lowering the level of two ponds at the closed plant to conduct routine maintenance. Such pumping is allowed so long as the utility monitors the water to make sure it is safe. Duke says it has been working on the project since last fall and notified the state about its plans in August.
A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Monday the agency is checking to see whether it was informed and is still investigating whether the discharge was toxic.
State regulators found the pumping when they visited the site near Moncure on March 11 as part of a week devoted to conducting intensive inspections at all of Duke Energy’s sites in the state. The inspections come after a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in February.
The inspectors found one of two pumps the company was using and saw that the level of the ponds had dropped, said Drew Elliot, the agency’s communications director. Inspectors spent all day at the site’s five coal ash ponds but didn’t finish their work, which entails hauling equipment over forested land and researching records, he said. Inspectors plan to return to the site on Tuesday.
Elliot said routine maintenance is allowed under the utility’s permit, but he added that discharging untreated wastewater could be a violation. Duke has stopped pumping the water, he said.
The Cape Fear River provides drinking water for Sanford, Dunn and Fayetteville, among other places.
Waterkeepers find 2 pumps
Elliot said DENR’s inspection was independent of an environmental group’s discovery of the two pumps at two ponds on March 10.
That’s when Waterkeeper Alliance flew a plane over the ponds and spotted the two pumps, which it documented in photographs provided to reporters.
The environmental group has investigated 20 coal ash ponds in five states, and claims almost 80 percent of the time it found illegal pollution of waterways, said Donna Lisenby, the group’s global coal campaign coordinator. On Thursday, members of the organization took a small motor boat up the Cape Fear River and a tributary trying to find where the pumps were discharging and to test the water.
The group was turned back by Duke employees and a Chatham County sheriff’s deputy.
Waterkeeper Alliance is one of four environmental groups that prompted DENR to file lawsuits against Duke Energy over the coal ash stored in ponds at 14 sites in North Carolina. It contends the state agency hasn’t been aggressive in regulating the utility.
Waterkeeper officials speculate Duke might be motivated to reduce the amount of wastewater that has to be treated, thereby saving money. Last week Duke said it would accelerate removing water from all its ash ponds, as part of its long-range plan to contain and make safe the storage of the material.
Lisenby said DENR should make public whatever monitoring results it has from the pumps, but she thinks she knows what tests will show. “We’re very confident that Duke was pumping concentrated, untreated coal ash water,” she said.
Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert disagrees.
“Discharges from those permitted outfalls are monitored and continued to be monitored throughout the process,” Culbert said. “We were continuing to meet permit limits to protect water quality throughout the process.”
EPA rates as ‘poor’
The maintenance work was being done on vertical pipes called “risers” that extend above the level of the wastewater in the ponds and send spillover into the discharge system. The coal ash is supposed to remain settled on the bottom of the ponds. The company is allowed to discharge some amount of that wastewater into the rivers next to the plants but must monitor it to make sure it is safe.
The Cape Fear plant was a coal-fired operation that ran for 89 years, until it closed in 2012.
Waterkeeper Alliance has also raised concerns about the safety of its five ponds, citing an Environmental Protection Agency report issued last year that graded the ponds’ structure as “poor.”
Only one other dam in the state, in Asheville, was graded “poor.” The Dan River plant, which spilled millions of gallons of wastewater and up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river in February, had been graded as “fair.” The Dan River spill was caused by a collapsed pipe that ran beneath one of its ponds.
But the EPA report only called for maintenance and additional analysis of the Cape Fear dams. DENR, in a formal response to the EPA in September, said inspections have not shown that the dams were in bad enough shape to warrant repairs.