Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station in Gaston County ranks second among more than 200 U.S. power plants for toxic coal ash polluting nearby groundwater, according to a study released this week by environmental groups.
At the Allen plant on Lake Wylie, coal ash storage sites have polluted groundwater with nine contaminants, including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, at levels exceeding federal safety standards, the report said. The findings, released by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, are based on data that became publicly available for the first time last year because of federal regulations.
But the report’s authors acknowledged that they could not determine the safety of drinking water near the ash sites they analyzed. That’s because power companies are not required to test private drinking water wells, the report said.
Charlotte-based Duke pushed back on the findings, accusing the environmental groups of cherry-picking data in an attempt to advance a misleading narrative and extreme agenda.
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“The report does not share new information regarding our operations, despite how some may characterize it,” spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said. “Very importantly, people and the environment, including drinking water, around our facilities remains well protected from our operations.”
Duke is also “well down the path” toward closing ash-storage sites in North Carolina, she said.
Plant rankings in the study were determined by how much contaminants surpassed the safe levels, the report said. At Allen, the contaminants that exceeded levels the most were cobalt (532 times), lithium (12 times) and selenium (seven times).
“At a time when the Trump EPA — now being run by a former coal lobbyist — is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment,” Abel Russ, lead author of the report and attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.
Following an ash spill into the Dan River in 2014, state legislators gave Duke until 2029 to close dozens of the coal ash sites in the state, including in the Charlotte metro area.
Duke’s customers are helping cover some of its coal ash clean-up costs. Last year, a North Carolina regulator said the company can recover from customers $546 million it spent on such costs. The customers include those in the Charlotte area.
Coal ash is what’s left over after burning coal to produce electricity.
The substance has been the subject of growing national attention in recent years after a series of spills in the U.S. Those include the 2014 incident in which Duke Energy estimated it spilled 39,000 tons of ash into North Carolina and Virginia’s Dan River.
The report from the environmental groups, which analyzed U.S. coal plants or off-site coal ash disposal areas, said groundwater near 242 of those sites contained unsafe levels of one or more pollutants found in coal ash.
Those contaminants include arsenic, which is known to cause multiple types of cancer, the report said. The pollutants also include lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage, according to the report.
The report is similar to a study released last March that claimed groundwater at 11 Duke Energy plants, including at the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman, contains “startlingly” high levels of radioactivity.
That report, by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, found radioactivity levels from radium at Marshall were 2.5 times that federal drinking water standards. At the time, Duke said there was no cause for concern about nearby drinking water wells.
The Allen plant, in Belmont, is producing the most groundwater contamination behind a San Antonio, Texas, plant owned and operated by the San Miguel Electric Power Cooperative, the report said.
The five other contaminants at the Allen plant that exceeded safe levels were beryllium, cadmium, fluoride, sulfate and thallium, according to the report.
Cobalt can cause liver injury and other health problems in humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to documents on file with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, ash sites at Allen contain an estimated 19.5 million tons of ash.
Dave Rogers, a Sierra Club senior campaign representative in Durham, said he was not surprised by the Allen plant’s ranking. The plant began operating in 1957, according to Duke’s website.
“It’s a really old coal plant that’s been burning coal for decades,” Rogers said. “Anybody drinking well water near these pits should have a high level of concern about whether or not their water is safe.”
Sheehan said that private well testing by N.C. regulators did not find elevated levels of cobalt in neighbors’ well water near the Allen plant.
“Drinking and recreational water supplies remain safe from coal ash impacts, and our modeling shows they’ll continue to be safe in the future,” she said.
In an August letter, Duke told the DEQ that it has connected 190 homes near the Allen plant to Belmont’s water system and installed filtration systems for 10 other homes.
Duke provided homeowners with those connections and filtration systems to comply with a state law passed in 2016. That law was designed to provide alternative water supplies to residents living near ash sites and relying on well water.
In the August letter, Duke said one household opted out of being connection to municipal water supplies or a filtration system and another household did not respond.
At the Allen plant, Duke has proposed a variety of options for cleaning up the site, including removing some of the ash while capping the rest with a barrier system.
The DEQ said Duke is expected to submit final plans for Allen by Aug. 1. The DEQ will then hold public meetings before ruling on the plans.
Rogers said his group prefers for ash to be excavated as opposed to leaving it in the ground, where it could come in contact with groundwater and lead to further contamination.
“We do not think that that is an adequate solution,” he said.