The smoke stacks of the Progress Energy power plant in Skyland are as large up close as far away. The left stack is no longer in use, while the one on the right is responsible for burning the coal used to power all of Progress Energy's Western North Carolina customers. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

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A ruling on a complaint filed by environmental groups asking the state’s top environmental commission to take more aggressive action to clean up groundwater contamination from 14 coal-fired power plants in the state could come as early as Dec. 3, according to a case representative.

That’s the date of a second hearing on a complaint filed in October by the Southern Environmental Law Center for four state environmental advocacy groups – Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club of Western North Carolina, Water Keeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance — with the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. The meeting is open to the public and can also be connected to through a webinar (https://denr.ncgovconnect.com/emc/).

The complaint cites power plants operated by Duke Energy and Progress Energy Carolinas, which merged into one company earlier this year. Based on data from the power companies’ own well testing, the groups said that there has been groundwater contamination or toxic materials, such as arsenic and selenium, found at each of the 14 sites around the state. The complaint can be read in its entirety below.

The Progress Energy plant in Skyland is one of the plants listed in the complaint.

The groups said that the contamination comes from ponds where coal ash, the product from burning coal caught by scrubbers, is stored.

DJ Gerken, senior attorney with the Law Center, said the complaint requests the Environmental Management Commission to reexamine state laws on contamination and take action to correct it.

A preliminary hearing occurred on Nov. 8, where the SELC requested the commission to issue a declaratory ruling stating that its clients’ claims are right.

The commission determines environmental rules and restrictions on contamination based on rulings by the state legislature. Currently, the rules give a 500-foot compliance boundary around each power plant that allows the facility to contaminate the space and groundwater within the boundary but not beyond it.

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The SELC thinks the state should not allow the 500-foot boundary, Gerken said.

“We’ve asked (the EMC) to look at the rule and say these old facilities, especially pre-1984 facilities, need to be cleaned up,” he said.

Susan Massengale, public information officer with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the state ensures compliance through permits and regulations. The department works directly with Duke and Progress Energy to monitor groundwater wells within and at compliance boundaries.

“The (SELC) press release at least seemed to give the impression that we weren’t doing anything to address contamination at these facilities, which is not true,” she said.

When contamination reaches the boundary or goes beyond it, then the department takes action to correct it, Massengale said.

But the environmental groups and the SELC want the commission to redefine the law and remove the compliance boundary.

Kelly Martin, spokeswoman for the Western North Carolina division of the Sierra Club, said the contamination within the boundary still poses a threat to groundwater.

“Really, this is a legal argument where we feel that when reviewing the law there’s legal protection that should be given to our groundwater,” she said, “and, specifically, that DENR has chosen to read that law in error.”

The environmental groups claim the coal-ash ponds at each site are leaching materials like iron and manganese into groundwater and threatening public health.

But a Duke Energy spokesperson said there is no evidence to suggest any effect on public health.

“The way that (the groups) are using information is confusing,” said Erin Culbert, communications manager at Duke Energy. “It makes it appear that we are out of compliance, but that is not the case.”

Culbert cited Duke and Progress Energy’s own testing and lack of state contamination violations as evidence that the power companies are not negatively affecting the environment.

“We feel very confident that drinking water supplies remain safe,” she said.

However, there have been exceedances of certain minerals found in the groundwater wells, said Massengale. When an exceedance is found at the boundary or beyond it, the department works with the facility to remediate the problem, she said.

“On a lot of these sites, there is more than one source of contamination,” she said.

State environmental regulators have to sort out the potential sources to determine the appropriate regulatory action.

But Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper with the Western North Carolina Alliance, said the department isn’t doing enough to implement their rules and require stricter action from the power companies.

“It’s not one of the environmental problems that doesn’t have a solution,” he said. “It’s just a solution that costs money.”

Carson and the other involved groups said changing the way the power companies store coal ash – from a wet pond to an enclosed, dry facility – is the first step in solving the problem of materials from the coal ash.

“I don’t think any of the data is in question,” Carson said. “I think it’s just a matter of what we do about it.

“The short term is to clean up the toxic ponds, and the long term is to move away from coal.”

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Duke and Progress Energy have taken steps to improve their storage by investing millions of dollars in dry storage facilities and preparing to retire old power plants, Culbert said.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the end goal is that these particular environmental groups do not want coal to be used as an energy source,” she said. “(But) we certainly have many measures in place to make sure public health is protected.”

SELC coal-ash pond, groundwater contamination complaint (PDF)
SELC coal-ash pond, groundwater contamination complaint (Text)

Katie Bailey

Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at bkbailey@live.unc.edu.

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