Groundwater at 11 Duke Energy plants, including in the Charlotte area, contains “startlingly” high levels of radioactivity, according to a report this month by an environmental group.
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is expressing concerns about radioactivity levels at the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman and other plants as disclosed in new lab results from Duke. At Marshall, on the northern banks of Lake Norman in Catawba County, radioactivity levels from radium were 2.5 times that federal drinking water standard, the report says.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy insisted there was no reason for concern about nearby drinking water wells or lake water.
The foundation, however, said the lab results confirm the widespread groundwater contamination being caused by storing coal ash, a byproduct of generating electricity at the plants.
Radioactivity is now one more contaminant “added to the stack of seemingly countless others” found at Duke’s coal ash sites, Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said. “The concern about this is that it is a potent source of contamination ... and there are people in the vicinity who use their groundwater for drinking,” he said.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the water testing, required by federal law, involved special monitoring wells immediately next to coal ash storage sites and do not reflect groundwater quality off Duke property.
In addition, at the Marshall, Riverbend and Allen plants, which are also in the Charlotte region, groundwater near ash storage sites flows away from neighbors, Culbert noted. Duke Energy has been open about how ash storage sites impact the groundwater immediately around them, she said.
“We continue to see no concerns for nearby drinking water wells or lake water quality,” she said, adding that critics are using the lab results to advance their agenda as they push for the most disruptive and expensive way to close coal ash storage sites.
Because radium is naturally occurring, Duke’s next step is to determine how much is from rocks and soil versus from ash storage sites, Culbert said.
The riverkeeper’s report also says levels of thallium, a poisonous metallic element, at the Marshall plant exceeded federal standards and were 18 times higher than North Carolina’s groundwater standard. Ash storage sites at the plant are leaking into surface water and groundwater upstream of drinking water intakes for more than 1 million people in the Charlotte region, the report says, calling the thallium and radium results alarming.
Taken together, the results mean the Marshall ash sites are much more polluted than previously disclosed, the report says.
The highest levels of radioactivity were found at Duke’s Asheville plant, where radium in groundwater was 38 times what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking water, according to the report.
Under North Carolina law passed following a 2014 ash spill in the Dan River, Duke must close all 32 of its North Carolina ash basins. Culbert said Duke has closure activities under way at many sites, and that closings will be done in ways that protect the environment and communities.
Meanwhile, Duke is still seeking approval from a state regulator to pass coal ash cleanup costs on to customers in a territory that includes Charlotte.
Hearings on that request have continued this week in Raleigh. Besides coal ash cleanup, Duke wants customers to cover other costs including investments to modernize power plants, generate cleaner power and improve reliability.