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Southern Environmental Law Center, Catawba Riverkeeper sue Duke Energy

The Southern Environmental Law Center has followed through with its threat and sued Duke Energy, claiming the utility polluted Mountain Island Lake.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court on behalf of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, says Duke discharged toxic metals and other pollutants into the lake at its Riverbend Steam Station, a coal-fired plant that the utility shut down April 1.

The Southern Environmental Law Center had filed notice in late March that it planned to sue Duke.

The action comes less than three weeks after the state of North Carolina sued Duke Energy Carolinas over alleged pollution at Mountain Island lake. State officials, under pressure from environmental groups, claimed ash basins at the Riverbend plant pose “a serious danger” to residents of the area.

Mountain Island Lake supplies drinking water for Charlotte, Gastonia and Mount Holly.

Duke Energy responded to the state’s suit by saying North Carolina officials were aware of leaks at the ash basin dams and the leaks do not pose a threat to people.

Erin Culbert, a Duke spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the utility believes “Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation will not successfully maintain this citizen suit.”

The SELC and Catawba Riverkeeper claim Duke Energy has stored coal ash from the Riverbend plant in two lagoons, and that water from those lagoons is leaking into the Catawba River and Mountain Island Lake. They say the coal ash contains known carcinogens that can damage the central nervous system.

Duke Energy shut down the Riverbend plant April 1, but Catawba Riverkeeper officials say they want the company to clean the basins soon.

“Do we just leave this here, leaking indefinitely into the lake?” Rick Gaskins of Catawba Riverkeeper said.

The SELC and Catawba Riverkeeper also have asked a Mecklenburg County judge to allow them to join the state suit against Duke Energy, saying they want to ensure that any enforcement action is fully prosecuted at the state level.

In the federal suit, Catawba Riverkeeper claims the ash lagoons are leaking streams of contaminated water into four ditches that Duke Energy built. The foundation claims the ditches take the water into the lake, at a rate of 5 gallons per second. Catawba Riverkeeper also claims Duke Energy’s state permit does not allow the water to drain into the lake.

“As long as the coal ash remains in these leaking, unlined lagoons, it will continue to discharge from the bottom and sides of the lagoons,” the suit says.

The suit demands that Duke Energy stop the alleged drainage into the lake and move the materials in the lagoons to another site.

The SELC said Tuesday that Duke Energy stores coal ash in a dry condition in double-lined landfills at its new Cliffside plant in Rutherford County. At the Riverbend site, the coal ash is stored in a wet state in unlined lagoons.

Culbert said some seepage is part of an earthen dam’s “structural integrity.”

“The volume of ash basin seepage is extremely small and has negligible impact to the overall water quality in Mountain Island Lake,” she said.

Culbert also said Duke Energy “has been clear that we fully intend to close the ash basins across North Carolina at our retired coal plants, once those are no longer needed. Riverbend’s are no exception, and we’ll be undertaking tremendous, site-specific due diligence” to keep nearby waterways safe.

Duke officials say the basins are an important stormwater management tool and need to keep operating for “a limited time.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107
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