New proposed discharge permits for Duke Energy’s three Charlotte-area power plants make legal ash pond leaks that have previously been illegal.
A state law that took effect in September gave Duke the option of stopping the leaks, which can contaminate water, or including them in new discharge permits. The new permits take the second option.
The proposed permits, which are renewed every five years, allow Duke to drain water from its ash ponds and other plant operations into local lakes.
Duke, in a report to the state in December, identified 200 seeps at its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. Together they leak more than 3 million gallons a day.
Proposed permits for three power plants – Riverbend on Mountain Island Lake, Marshall on Lake Norman and Allen on Lake Wylie – include 23 of the seeps.
Seeps at Riverbend were among the nine federal misdemeanors Duke agreed last month to settle for $102 million.
“They’re illegal enough to constitute a $102 million fine, but here you have the state regulatory agency coming out and saying they’re legal,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.
Perkins said some of the permits place no limits on concentrations of potentially toxic ash elements such as cobalt and boron.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has called the leaks insignificant compared to the tens of millions of gallons a day that Duke was already permitted to release from its ash ponds.
DENR calls including the seeps in the permits an “interim measure” to ensure they’re identified and monitored until the ponds are closed.
Duke says the new permits are critical steps toward closing its 32 North Carolina ash ponds, for which legislators have set a 2029 deadline. Ash will start being removed from Riverbend, one of four high-priority power plants, as soon as permits for that work are granted, Duke said.
“As we review, it’s clear legislators have included additional provisions to ensure water quality remains protected as we work toward basin closures,” Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said of the permits.
Regulators assess power plant discharges by their “reasonable potential” to contaminate rivers or lakes. DENR says it found no potential that the ash pond discharges or seeps at the Charlotte-area plants would cause problems.
But DENR also applied federal standards to the seeps and to Riverbend’s ash pond discharge. The standards are for four pollutants that pose potential risks: arsenic, mercury, selenium and nitrate.
The power plants have to meet those standards by the end of 2019.
The proposed permits are online at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/guest/duke-npdes-permits. DENR will hold a public hearing on them from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. April 8 at the James Warner Citizens Center in Lincolnton. Bruce Henderson