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N.C. water quality agency sues Duke over Asheville coal ash pollution

A North Carolina environmental agency asked Friday for a court injunction against a Duke Energy subsidiary over groundwater apparently contaminated by coal ash at an Asheville power plant.

The filing marks the first time the N.C. Division of Water Quality has taken legal action against a utility over its handling of ash. Contamination has been found near ash lagoons at 14 Duke plants in North Carolina, but much of it might be traceable to natural sources.

The water agency said high levels of thallium, a metal that can cause nervous system problems, were found in three wells near an ash lagoon at Progress Energy Carolinas’ Asheville plant.

Thallium occurs naturally, but “its presence in groundwater and specific occurrence at this site indicates impacts to groundwater resulting from coal-burning activities,” the agency wrote in a complaint filed in Wake County Superior Court.

State staff members found a second violation this month when they saw seepage from the plant’s ash basin flowing toward the nearby French Broad River.

The water agency asked the court for an order to stop the contamination and make Progress report the “cause, significance and extent” of the thallium contamination and seepage.

It also wants Progress to determine whether high levels of seven other elements found in groundwater at the plant came from natural sources. At least one of those, cadmium, would not be expected to occur naturally.

“We are reviewing today’s filing and believe we have diligently complied with the plant’s environmental permit,” Duke said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to resolve these issues with the state, which is responsible for safeguarding our lakes and rivers.”

Three environmental groups gave notice in January that they intended to sue Progress Carolinas over pollution from the Asheville plant. The groups said pollutants from coal ash stored in ponds at the plant were detected in the French Broad River.

The 60-day notice expires at the end of next week.

“We appreciate and are supportive of the fact that the state is taking action. Right now we’re evaluating what our next appropriate steps are,” said Amelia Burnette, an Asheville-based lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman for the Division of Water Quality, said Friday’s court filing “was among our tools we could use in light of the SELC litigation.”

Massengale wouldn’t comment on whether the division expects to take legal action in regard to other Duke plants.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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