State Politics

DENR plans new safeguards for Wilmington coal ash plant

A popular fishing spot near Wilmington – which also happens to be the cooling pond for a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant – is about to get some new protections.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced Friday that it is reclassifying Sutton Lake as a public resource instead of a private cooling pond at the Sutton Steam Electric Plant. The designation will mean more stringent water quality standards and more frequent inspections of dams there.

Sutton is one of the first four Duke Energy plants that will be closed under a new law enacted this year regulating cleanup of coal ash basins. Fourteen plants are scheduled to be closed by 2029.

The reclassification was the result of DENR’s review of coal ash basins at all of the sites, according to a statement released by the agency. “By reclassifying this lake, we will be doing a better job of protecting the public and the environment,” said Tom Reeder, water resource director.

Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, welcomed the change. He pointed out that a federal judge in June ruled against Duke and determined that Sutton Lake was, in fact, a lake and was subject to federal law.

That ruling came after environmental groups represented by SELC filed notice a year earlier that they intended to sue to enforce the federal Clean Water Act. Holleman wrote to DENR in October urging regulators to reclassify, based in part on the judge’s ruling.

“Today DENR has done what we had been urging them to do for months,” Holleman said. “DENR’s determination is an important step in finally getting Sutton under control.”

Sutton Lake was created for then-owner Carolina Light and Power Company to use as a cooling pond and managed as a public fishery with a boat access. Since that classification in 1971, state officials have considered changing it several times, according to DENR. The decision was made this summer with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of its evaluation of all 14 sites, according to DENR.

The 1,100-acre lake is near the Cape Fear River north of Wilmington. SELC says the lake has been heavily contaminated with selenium, which has harmed fish and waterfowl. But a spokesman for Duke Energy says water quality is good and fish from both the lake and the river are safe to eat.

“Most importantly, we remain committed to closing ash basins across the state in a way that’s based on good science and engineering,” Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said Friday. “North Carolina lawmakers designated the Sutton site for ash excavation to a fully lined solution, and we are developing those plans.”

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