Contaminated seeps found near Duke Energy plant

Environmental advocates said Thursday that they found contaminated seepage into the Yadkin River from ash ponds at Duke Energy’s Buck power plant in Rowan County.

The advocates said they found orange-colored leaks, not previously identified, in a quarter-mile stretch of the Yadkin in November. The seeps were normally below the Yadkin’s water line, they say, but were exposed when the river was drawn down for bridge maintenance.

“We think this has been a long-term and extensive problem,” said John Suttles, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who represents the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Yadkin Riverkeeper.

Tests found arsenic, cadmium, selenium and other elements that are present in ash at levels above health standards, the groups said.

Duke says it has extensively surveyed its sites, including Buck, for seeps and reported the findings to North Carolina’s environmental agency. Their orange color is often caused by harmless, naturally occurring iron bacteria, Duke said.

“Seeps occur at low flows and contain low levels of constituents, so the Yadkin River would continue to be well protected and would not be influenced by these types of flows,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said by email.

Buck was retired in 2013 but still stores ash. Its three ash ponds will be assigned risk ratings, under a state law enacted this year, that will determine how and when they are closed.

Seeps from ash-pond dams have been frequently identified at Duke’s power plants in North Carolina. The state has filed lawsuits against Duke over ash contamination at each of the 14 plants.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against Duke over Buck’s ash in September. The litigation was based on different grounds than the state’s lawsuits, including claims that seeps not engineered by Duke leaked onto private land.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it will take water samples near Buck to test for contaminants above water quality standards.

“It should be noted that any unpermitted seep or discharge from the plant not included in the wastewater discharge permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act and was included in the state’s Aug. 16, 2013, lawsuit filed against Duke Energy,” DENR said in a statement.