Group sues Duke Energy over coal ash; cites ‘contamination’ of Mayo Lake

A pipe rises from a new coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Mayo power plant in Roxboro.
A pipe rises from a new coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Mayo power plant in Roxboro. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Duke Energy is the target of another lawsuit over its coal ash, this one filed by a nonprofit group that advocates for the Roanoke River basin in northern North Carolina.

The Roanoke River Basin Association says Duke’s Mayo power plant in Roxboro, near the Virginia line north of Raleigh, violated the federal Clean Water Act.

It claims the 6.9 million tons of ash at Mayo has illegally contaminated the popular fishing destination Mayo Lake, a nearby stream, wetlands and groundwater with toxic metals.

Mayo is two counties east of Duke’s 2014 ash spill into the Dan River, which triggered a state-ordered shutdown of all its ash ponds. The Dan is part of the Roanoke River basin.

“Duke Energy has polluted the Roanoke River basin with more coal ash than any other area of North Carolina,” Mike Pucci, president of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said in a statement. “We suffered the Dan River spill and do not deserve more Duke Energy pollution at Mayo.”

The lawsuit was filed in the middle district of U.S. District Court, where a similar lawsuit over Duke’s Buck power plant near Salisbury is before the court. Both are so-called “citizen suits” that claim state and federal officials aren’t aggressively enforcing environmental laws.

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality sued Duke over groundwater contamination and illegal seepage from ash ponds at Mayo and other power plants in 2013. Advocates are challenging a $7 million settlement of those cases.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs agreed last fall with advocates in the Buck case, saying state regulators “do not inspire confidence” that they will soon resolve contamination issues.

At Mayo, ash held in a 144-acre pond is submerged in groundwater that is contaminating other areas, Monday’s lawsuit says.

The Roanoke River group seeks a court order to force Duke to remove the ash and dispose of it in a lined landfill. The Mayo plant has a landfill large enough to hold that ash, it says.

The lawsuit pits Duke against the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the Roanoke River association and advocacy groups. The law center says Duke’s coal ash needs to be excavated, while Duke says much of it can be safely left in place.

“The closer North Carolina gets to a common-sense approach to close ash basins, the more extreme SELC gets in its rhetoric and tactics,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said. “SELC wants to burden North Carolina with the most extreme, most expensive and most disruptive closure option, without measurable environmental impact.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender