NC orders Duke Energy to stop flow of ash-contaminated groundwater

Flemington community neighbors Sam Malpass (left) and Kenneth Sandlin of Wilmington walk through former hunting grounds near Duke Energy’s Sutton power plant.
Flemington community neighbors Sam Malpass (left) and Kenneth Sandlin of Wilmington walk through former hunting grounds near Duke Energy’s Sutton power plant. AP

North Carolina’s environmental agency has ordered Duke Energy to stop the flow of contaminated groundwater off the site of a power plant in Wilmington.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources fined Duke $25.1 million in March for groundwater violations at the Sutton plant. Duke is appealing the fine.

Duke acknowledged contamination at Sutton in late 2013, when it agreed to pay up to $1.8 million for a water line to a low-income community near the plant.

On Tuesday, DENR sent Duke a notice saying that recent tests found high levels of boron – a coal ash element that is an indicator of polluted groundwater – a half-mile beyond the line that indicates a violation.

Boron levels at two water-supply wells did not exceed the state groundwater standard but came close, the notice said. The wells were downhill of the Sutton ash ponds.

“The levels of boron in these wells are a clear indication that coal ash constituents from Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments have infiltrated the water supply,” DENR assistant secretary Tom Reeder said in a statement.

The notice orders Duke to take immediate action to “control and prevent further migration” of the contaminants. It gives Duke until July 9 to file plans on how it will control the contaminated plume and evaluate its effectiveness.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan called the timing of Tuesday’s notice “curious and confusing, since the company has been following the state’s prescribed process to address the situation at Sutton for months now.”

Groundwater tests that will guide plans for closing Sutton’s ash ponds plans are underway, she said, with results expected later this summer. Duke is waiting for state permits to start closing the ponds.

Contaminated groundwater has been found at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants in the state. Owners of 166 private wells near the plants have been urged by state health authorities not to drink their water.

But Duke says there is little evidence that ash ponds have hurt their neighbors.

Sheehan said owners of one of the two wells with high boron levels near Sutton refused Duke’s offer of drinking water. The other well isn’t operating, she said.

DENR said Tuesday it has retained an outside law firm, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, to help defend the state against Duke’s appeal of the state-record $25.1 million fine. The firm will be paid $275 an hour to help the attorney general’s staff.

The fine was the state’s largest for environmental damage, quadrupling the $5.7 million levied as part of a 1986 air-quality case.

Duke hotly fired back, calling the fine “regulatory overreach.” Sheehan said Duke has serious legal concerns about the way DENR calculated the fine. Its appeal is before the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

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