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Thousands say no to Duke Energy's coal-ash settlement

By Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

Public sentiment is heavily against a proposed settlement of coal-ash lawsuits filed by North Carolina environmental regulators against Duke Energy.

The state sought injunctions against Duke earlier this year for water contaminated by ash at its Riverbend power plant west of Charlotte and its Asheville plant.

In a settlement proposed in July, Duke agreed to assess the sources and extent of contamination and pay a $99,000 fine. A Wake County Superior Court judge will rule on the proposal once it’s presented in final form.

But the verdict is already in from the court of public opinion: No deal.

Virtually all the 4,939 comments filed before an Aug. 14 deadline opposed the settlement or urged the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to hold a hearing on it.

“We are frankly dismayed and perplexed that DENR would support such an ineffectual and meaningless settlement,” wrote a Charlotte couple who live on Mountain Island Lake.

Added another lake resident: “Leaving the coal ash where it is simply invites a disaster for the health of all those who rely on Mountain Island Lake for drinking water, let alone the environmental impact and harm to the marine and plant life.”

Most comments were form letters that repeated the talking points of advocacy groups who want the state to make Duke clean up known contamination now and prevent further damage.

The Observer’s review of personally-written comments found 187 denouncing the settlement as too weak. Another 161 asked for a public hearing or removal of the ash from the open ponds where it is stored. Seven letters were vague or neutral.

One, from a Duke employee who lives near Riverbend, endorsed the settlement.

Many comments were filed by people who live on Mountain Island Lake, where Riverbend is located, or in the Asheville area. But dozens came from across North Carolina and from as far as Kansas.

Duke says it meets state water standards, and spokeswoman Erin Culbert defended the settlement.

“The proposed consent order calls for more rigorous data gathering, monitoring and reporting of ash basin discharges. Utility critics say this delays ‘cleanup,’ ” Culbert said. “In reality, regulators need that information first to determine whether additional technical solutions are needed.”

Groundwater contamination, some of it possibly naturally-occurring, has been found near ash ponds at all 14 of Duke’s N.C. coal-fired power plants. Arsenic has been found in Mountain Island Lake near Riverbend’s discharge. The Asheville plant is suspected of draining toxic pollutants into the French Broad River.

Consent orders under the Clean Water Act, as the state has proposed with Duke, require public comment periods. A public hearing, which many commenters asked for, is not required.

The comments will be summarized, along with settlement revisions based on them, in a report to be filed by Sept. 13 with Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway.

“I’ve got to believe the comments will have an impact” on the settlement, said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “You’ve got to believe that a public agency that goes to the trouble to solicit comments, and read them, will act on it.”

The proposed settlement is no longer just between the state and Duke.

Ridgeway ruled this month that the environmental groups the law center represents, including the Charlotte-based Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, may become a party to the suits. That gives the groups a chance to demand more information from Duke and help shape the settlement.

In June the Riverkeeper and law center sued Duke separately, in federal court, over Riverbend’s ash.

Riverbend closed in April. Duke says it is hiring technical experts to recommend how to permanently close the ash ponds there and at other retired plants.

“Coal ash is an emotional issue for some, but it’s critical that the company makes ash basin closure decisions based on objective data and input from our regulators,” Culbert said. “We plan to safely close ash basins in a way that ensures long-term water quality protection, first and foremost, while balancing the many interests of our customers.”

In August, North Carolina sought injunctions against ash pollution at Duke’s 12 other coal-fired power plants in the state. They include the Allen plant on Lake Wylie and Marshall on Lake Norman.

The Southern Environmental Law Center asked a judge Tuesday to let three environmental groups intervene in the state’s case against Duke Energy’s Sutton plant near Wilmington. The groups are Cape Fear River Watch, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The state has said a low-income community that relies on well water is 2,200 feet from contaminated groundwater at the plant.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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