State cites Duke Energy for ash pond leaks

Workers excavate coal ash-laden soil from the Dan River power plant in Eden in January.
Workers excavate coal ash-laden soil from the Dan River power plant in Eden in January. AP

North Carolina’s environmental agency has cited Duke Energy for leaking coal ash ponds at 13 power plants, including four in the Charlotte region.

The ponds hold water and ash that contain potentially toxic heavy metals. Leaks from the pond dams, also called seeps, allow contaminated water to drain into rivers and lakes.

Duke reported 200 seeps from its North Carolina power plants in late 2014.

The violation notices issued Friday give Duke 30 days to respond while the state considers whether to levy fines. The Department of Environmental Quality said it may issue more violations if water quality standards have been broken.

Among the power plants cited were Riverbend and Allen in Gaston County, Marshall in Catawba County and Buck in Rowan County.

DEQ issued a wastewater discharge permit for Riverbend last month that for the first time legalizes a dozen seeps at the plant. The permit will let Duke start draining water from Riverbend’s two ponds before excavating the ash in them.

The Riverbend notice was for leaks before the permit was issued, DEQ said.

The state has said the Riverbend permit will serve as a template for similar permits for other Duke power plants. Duke plans to excavate ash at four of those plants.

Duke, in response, said there is nothing new in the violations cited Friday.

“The best way to reduce or eliminate seeps altogether is to safely remove the water from ash basins and close them in ways that protect people and the environment. That’s exactly what Duke Energy is doing right now,” the company said in a statement.

Duke maintains that seeps occur at all earthen dams and says its own leaks haven’t hurt water quality. The company said it has cataloged, tested and monitored its seeps as DEQ asked.

Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder appeared to agree at an Environmental Review Commission meeting in January. Reeder told the panel that “every earthen impoundment has seeps” and that, after reaching lakes or rivers, they have “very, very, very low” potential of breaking water quality standards.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents advocacy groups that have sued Duke over coal ash, criticized DEQ for only hinting at fines against the utility.

“These letters will not protect the public from coal ash pollution because they do not require that the polluting ash be removed from these leaking and unlined waterfront pits to safer dry, lined storage,” senior attorney Frank Holleman said.

Much of the regulatory attention to Duke’s ash handling after a 2014 spill into the Dan River has focused on groundwater. Contamination has been detected under each of the 14 coal-fired power plants in the state.

State lawsuits against Duke’s plants cited both groundwater contamination and illegal seeps into surface water such as lakes. Duke agreed to a $7 million settlement of the groundwater violations last September.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender