The Sierra Club announced on Wednesday a local campaign to encourage Progress Energy to retire its coal-fired WNC power plant, located in Skyland. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press
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
The N.C. Division of Water Quality has filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court to require Progress Energy Carolinas, Inc. to address wastewater discharge permit compliance issues at the Asheville coal-fired power plant. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH – The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court against Progress Energy Carolinas on Friday, March 22, to examine possible wastewater permit violations at the company’s power plant in Asheville.

According to a press release, the Division of Water Quality has found “levels of chemical constituents that exceed requirements for groundwater protection” in its groundwater monitoring at the Asheville plant.

The division’s state water quality inspectors also observed seeps of liquids at the toe drains of coal ash ponds that were not authorized by the plant’s discharge permits. “The department asserts that the unpermitted discharges are in violation of federal and state laws,” the press release said.

Coal ash ponds store the byproduct from burning coal caught by scrubbers and have been the reason for community and division concern in the pastRead our ongoing special report on environmental concerns on the French Broad River, including reporting on coal ash.

The power plant’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit allows Progress Energy to discharge a certain amount of wastewater into surrounding basins, mostly into Lake Julian and the French Broad River.

Susan Massengale, public information officer with NCDENR, said inspectors found many chemicals at levels exceeding those allowed by the company’s permit.

Massengale said the lawsuit is asking the court to direct Progress Energy to assess the possible sources of the exceedances and submit a report to the Division of Water Quality and related parties within 120 days.

She said the excess of thallium is causing particular concern. Because the excess of it and other chemicals have never occurred at their current levels within the compliance boundary, the division wants Progress Energy and the court to assess the origin of the chemicals and determine whether they are naturally occurring or the result of burning coal.

Massengale said that the exceedances have been found in the plant’s surrounding 500-foot compliance boundary. The boundary allows Progress Energy to contaminate the groundwater within that area but not outside of it.

The complaint states, “Although thallium is a naturally occurring element, its presence in groundwater and specific occurrence at this site indicate impacts to groundwater resulting from coal burning activities.”

The complaint also states, “The DWQ will make the final determination whether the constituents are naturally occurring or derived from coal burning activities.”

There is no current data that nearby drinking water wells have been affected by the coal ash ponds, according to the division’s press release. The lawsuit directs Progress Energy to conduct private well water tests to determine if any contamination has occurred and report the data to the division.

The complaint and motion for injunctive relief and its subsequent exhibits say that the state can file a complaint in court if it suspects potential violations by a plant or other entity. View the documents here.

Duke Energy, which merged with Progress Energy last year, released a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“We are reviewing Friday’s filing and believe we have diligently complied with the plant’s environmental permit,” the statement said. “We welcome the opportunity to resolve these issues with the state, which is responsible for safeguarding our lakes and rivers.”

No hearing date has been set.

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Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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