Citizens question Duke Energy’s coal plans at hearing

FILE PHOTO May 2014: This shows the primary coal ash basin at Duke Energy’s now-retired Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake.
FILE PHOTO May 2014: This shows the primary coal ash basin at Duke Energy’s now-retired Riverbend power plant on Mountain Island Lake. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

More than 20 speakers pummeled Duke Energy at a state hearing Wednesday over its coal ash ponds on Charlotte-area lakes.

The hearing, held by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was on renewal of permits that let Duke drain water from its ponds at three power plants into Mountain Island Lake, Lake Norman and Lake Wylie.

Several speakers challenged a facet of the permits that makes illicit seeps from the ponds legal by identifying and monitoring them.

But the larger message, after more than a year of public attention to ash after a spill into the Dan River, was simpler: Move the ash away from water supplies. Ash contains metals that can be toxic in high doses.

“Duke says in their ads that they want to do the right thing,” said Chuck Myers, who lives on the Gaston County side of Mountain Island Lake. “Well, now’s the time to do the right thing and stop putting contaminants into our water supply.”

Added Mountain Island resident Kerry Hutton: “We’re not scientists. We’re just people who live on the lake hoping to maintain our property values and the health of our children.”

None of the 22 speakers during a nearly two-hour hearing defended Duke.

The company is under legislative orders to close its 32 North Carolina ash ponds by 2029. Ponds at four power plants, including Riverbend on Mountain Island Lake, have five-year timetables.

Duke says it needs the state permits in order to close the ponds, which have to be drained of water before ash can be removed. Including the seeps – 23 have been identified at the three Charlotte-area power plants – is only a temporary measure until the ponds are closed, Duke says.

Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environment Law Center, which has sued Duke over ash contamination, called the seep provision a license to leak. That violates the federal Clean Water Act that authorizes the permits, he said.

Holleman said the provision mimics an ash lawsuit settlement that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources was forced to withdraw after the Dan River spill. The permits, he said, allow both identified and future leaks to continue.

“We’re certainly prepared to challenge them,” Holleman said.

Seeps at the Riverbend power plant, west of Charlotte, were cited among the nine federal misdemeanors Duke has agreed to settle for $102 million. The settlement comes before a federal judge next week.

DENR says including the leaks in discharge permits will ensure they’re monitored until Duke closes its ash ponds. DENR says it found no potential that the ash pond discharges or seeps at the Charlotte-area power plants – Riverbend, Allen and Marshall – would contaminate the lakes.

The department applied stricter limits on four elements, including arsenic, mercury, selenium and nitrate, that will be enforced once Duke starts draining water from its ash ponds to close them.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins called the permits “scientifically indefensible” for not setting discharge limits on some ash elements.

And some speakers at the hearing detected a double standard in allowing Duke to release contaminants that residents can’t.

William Smith, who said he had once worked at the Riverbend plant, added that “we dumped everything on the site into the ash ponds.”

“A lot of stuff has run into the river,” he said. “Folks, we’ve been drinking this stuff for years.”

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Twitter: @bhender