Advocates sue Duke Energy over coal ash

Environmental advocates filed more lawsuits Wednesday against Duke Energy, claiming the company’s coal ash practices broke federal clean-water law and dam-safety standards at three power plants.

Groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center cited problems at the Buck power plant in Rowan County, the Cape Fear plant in Chatham County and the Lee plant in Wayne County.

The law center says the actions are aimed at forcing Duke to clean up ash ponds at the power plants that state lawsuits and legislation failed to do.

“We’re taking action to ensure these communities and rivers are protected from Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution,” senior attorney Frank Holleman said in a statement. “(State regulators) and the General Assembly chose not to require cleanup of coal ash in these communities, so citizens groups are stepping up to enforce the law and protect clean water for the people of North Carolina.”

The lawsuits ask the court to make Duke stop the flow of contaminants from the three plants, remove ash from their ponds and clean up groundwater and nearby rivers and lakes.

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company “continues to be committed to closing its North Carolina ash basins in a way that is fact-based and environmentally sound.”

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources filed suit last year against all 14 of Duke’s active and retired coal-fired power plants in the state.

Those cases, filed after environmental advocates gave notice they would sue Duke on their own, are still before the courts.

Environmental advocates say the lawsuits they filed Wednesday are on different grounds than the state litigation. DENR said last week that it would not take action to pre-empt the filings.

The state lawsuits were based on groundwater contamination and engineered discharges from Duke’s ash pond dams. The environmental advocates focused on different claims, including that dams are unsafe and contaminants that settled to the bottom of ash ponds reached waterways.

None of the three power plants named in the actions are among the four sites where legislation enacted last month requires Duke to excavate and remove ash. The legislation is awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

The lawsuit addressing the Buck plant, on the Yadkin River, says ash pond dams have broken, cracked and leaking pipes.

Ash ponds at the plant, it says, contain pollutants including a cancer-causing form of chromium. Private wells near the plant, the lawsuit says, also show contaminants including that form of chromium.

Duke says tests of private wells it conducted in May showed total chromium within state groundwater standards. Duke is working with DENR to do further tests.

The Cape Fear plant’s dams are in poor condition, the center says, and seep into the Cape Fear River upstream of a half-dozen water intakes. The Waterkeeper Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, says Duke pumped 60 million gallons of ash-tainted water into the river earlier this year.

Duke says the release was the same treated water its state discharge permit allows and was part of a state-approved repair plan. Duke says Cape Fear’s dams are structurally sound.

The Lee plant’s dams failed to meet minimum stability standards, the center says. Its ash ponds have contaminated groundwater with high levels of arsenic, it says, and discharged illegally into the Neuse River and wetlands.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, the Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

The Southern Environmental Law Center’s clients have previously sued Duke in federal court over ash handling at its Riverbend power plant west of Charlotte and the Sutton plant in Wilmington. Environmental advocates have also become parties to the state lawsuits against Duke.