Environmentalists say Cape Fear ‘insanely toxic’; Duke Energy calls claim ‘outrageous’

Take a close look at a potential coal ash spill on the Cape Fear River

News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
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News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

Environmental organizations said Wednesday they have measured “insanely toxic” contamination near Duke Energy’s flooded ash ponds in Wilmington.

Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice said they measured levels of arsenic 71 times higher than the state’s drinking water standard.

Charlotte-based Duke dismissed the announcement as an “outrageous claim” designed to promote an “extreme agenda.” Duke Energy said it has been testing water quality in the Cape Fear River and nearby Sutton Lake, where its ash pond flooded, for the past two weeks and that its measurements are well below safe drinking standards, posing no danger to the the public.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors coal ash safety standards, is expected to issue its lab results Thursday. The agency on Tuesday issued lab results for water quality at another flooded ash pond, at Duke’s H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro, and its findings for that facility corroborated Duke’s lab results that the Neuse River is not contaminated by coal ash. The Waterkeeper Alliance had said that its testing of the Neuse showed arsenic levels nearly 18 times higher than the state safety standard for drinking water.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity, and the ash has been stored near power plants for decades in open-air impoundments. Coal ash is not classified as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency but can cause deformities in wildlife and cancer in people exposed to elevated levels over many years.

The Waterkeeper Alliance took three samples on Sept. 21 at Duke’s Sutton plant on the Cape Fear River, where it said coal ash was flowing out of a storage pond due to flooding from Hurricane Florence. In their announcement, the environmental groups described one of the dam breaches as comparable to a Class II whitewater rapid, where “entire rootballs from trees were tumbling down with the current.”

One lab result showed that arsenic levels were at 710 micrograms per liter; the state safety standard is 10 micrograms per liter. At two other sites the Waterkeeper Alliance samples tested at 32.8 micrograms per liter and 2.8 micrograms per liter.

The organization’s lab results for barium and selenium also varied widely, from 24.8 micrograms per liter to 3,370 micrograms per liter.

The Waterkeeper Alliance said that five heavy metals commonly found in coal ash were measured at elevated levels in the Cape Fear River that exceeded contamination found in the Dan River in 2014 when a Duke coal ash pond failed and released 39,000 tons of coal ash slurry.

“We wanted to know what was entering the Cape Fear River,” said Donna Lisenby, global advocacy manager of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “It concerns me that the levels of five heavy metals are higher than what we saw in the Dan River spill.”

Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Bridget Munger said she couldn’t comment on the activists’ lab results without seeing state lab results, which are expected to be issued Thursday. DEQ and Duke take water samples further downstream, where the coal ash residue is highly diluted, whereas the environmental groups take water samples at or near the coal ash ponds, where concentrations are highest.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company’s coal ash measurements downstream of the Sutton coal ash pond are “negligible.” Some of the measurements for heavy metals have doubled and tripled over the course of several days but did not approach state safety limits. Several scientists told The News & Observer last week that Duke’s testing was not thorough enough to determine how much coal ash was in the river because at high flood stage the water samples are highly diluted.

Sheehan said Wednesday the highly elevated measurements taken by the activists are so inconsistent with Duke’s lab results that they suggest a problem with the activists’ sampling or water collection. Duke estimates that about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash and dirt were displaced from a landfill during Hurricane Florence and the material moved to a nearby access road or a perimeter ditch.

It’s possible a small amount of ash escaped into the Cape Fear River, she said in an email, but said repeated lab tests indicate no environmental threat.

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