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Environmental groups target coal ash for 'poisoning' waterways

By Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

With Duke Energy’s smokestacks on Mountain Island Lake as a backdrop, environmental advocates blasted U.S. utilities Tuesday for “poisoning” the nation’s waterways with toxic metals from coal ash.

“Some of the worst offenders are here in the state of North Carolina,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said as five groups released a national report on ash pollution.

North Carolina sued Duke this year over public health and environmental threats from ash stored at the Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake and at its Asheville plant. They agreed to settle the suits last week.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in April, proposed the first federal limits on toxic metals discharged from power plants. The new rules would replace standards last updated in 1982.

But regulators also got a share of the environmentalists’ wrath.

North Carolina sued Duke, Kennedy contended, to block presumably tougher adversaries from the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center. The EPA’s proposed rules, advocates say, have been watered down by industry opposition and the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

“OMB caved to industry pressure and weakened the rule,” said Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club.

Advocates, citing the EPA, say coal-fired power plants dump more than half the toxic pollutants in U.S. waterways. Some elements, such as lead and mercury, can lower the IQ of children exposed to it. Arsenic, also found in ash, can cause cancer.

“That is child abuse. It’s assault and battery. If it progresses far enough, it could even be murder,” Kennedy told a lakeside press conference. “If any of you dumped cadmium or arsenic or any of these other elements in this water, you’d be hauled off to jail.”

The EPA estimates that 29 million tons of ash generated each year are stored in open lagoons. Most water contamination is linked to unlined lagoons, like the two at Riverbend.

Duke Energy questioned the report’s credibility, saying it contained errors and omissions.

“These issues are too important for the public to be misled,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said in a statement.

The company produced water sampling results from Charlotte’s water intake on Mountain Island Lake from 2000 to 2010 that showed arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and selenium below laboratory detection limits. Mecklenburg County officials say the lake’s overall water quality is good.

Trace metals in lakes Norman and Wylie, where Duke operates the Marshall and Allen power plants, are also routinely within state standards, Duke said.

Arsenic has been found in Mountain Island Lake near the discharge point from Riverbend’s ash lagoons, and elevated iron and manganese in groundwater at the plant. All three metals can occur naturally, although Duke has acknowledged that the lagoons caused at least some of the groundwater pollution.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins led advocates by boat Tuesday to one of five channels draining water into the lake from Riverbend’s lagoon dams.

Riverbend closed in April, and Duke disputed the report’s claim that large amounts of water are still discharged from its lagoons. State discharge permits issued in 2011 for Riverbend, Allen and Marshall tell Duke to sample lake water for arsenic, selenium, mercury and five other metals twice a year. But they set no limits on how much of the metals may be released other than for copper, iron, and at Marshall, selenium.

The advocates’ report highlighted another Duke power plant, Sutton near Wilmington, whose selenium discharges it said have been linked to fluctuating largemouth bass numbers in an adjacent lake.

Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and Earthjustice released Tuesday’s report, which was based on EPA data.

Of the 386 coal-fired plants reviewed, the report said, nearly 70 percent of those that discharge water from coal ash and air-pollution scrubbers have no limits on arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury and selenium. Only 63 percent have to measure the amount of those metals in their discharge water.

EPA favors one of four options for the proposed ash rule, which it says would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.6 billion pounds a year.

The advocacy groups favor two tougher options, one of which they say would end almost all toxic discharges. The most expensive of them, EPA has estimated, would add $6.46 a year to average utility bills.

Duke supports “appropriate federal, non-hazardous regulations implemented by the states that ensure the safe management of coal ash and other byproducts,” Culbert said.

“Ash has been studied for decades, and EPA has determined several times it is non-hazardous.”

EPA says 23,000 miles of rivers and streams are damaged by metals from power plants. Each year, it says, power plants dump 65,000 pounds of lead, 3,000 pounds of mercury and nearly 80,000 pounds of cancer-causing arsenic.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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