Duke Energy's Cliffside Steam Station, located in Rutherford County, is pictured here in an archive photo from 2011. Image courtesy of Duke Energy.

A coalition of environmental advocacy groups is asking the N.C. Division of Water Resources to consider changes to a plan for Duke Energy to close coal ash basins at several of its power plants in the state.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, MountainTrue, the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Appalachian Voices, the Roanoke River Basin Association and the Stokes County NAACP, submitted public comments documents to the Division of Water Resources proposing changes to a “special order by consent” that details plans for Duke Energy to remove or abate coal ash seepage at power plants in Gaston, Catawba, Cleveland and Rutherford counties through a process known as “decanting,” which “consists of lowering the free-standing water level to no less than three feet above coal ash that has settled in basins,” according to North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality documents.

Attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center, writing to Bob Sledge, a representative of the Division of Water Resources, said in documents filed on Feb. 14 that the proposals in the special order by consent are a good starting point in the effort to eliminate coal ash seepage at the Allen, Cliffside and Marshall steam stations, but that the document contains loopholes that would allow some leaks to remain unaddressed.

They expressed concern that the proposed plan would allow Duke to continue dumping coal ash into water systems through “engineered” seeps and fail to force Duke to monitor for several contaminants associated with coal ash during the abatement process.

The draft special order by consent would also allow Duke to flush millions of gallons of untreated water polluted by coal ash into waterways as part of the final closure of the company’s coal ash basins, according to Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the SELC.

“When a prior version of the permit was put forward, we objected to the weak limits on arsenic and other pollutants contained in the permits for this last big flush of coal-ash polluted water,” Holleman said in an email to CPP.

“DEQ assured us that we didn’t have to worry so much about the limits because the permit required Duke Energy to treat those flushes with chemical or physical treatment. In the latest version, DEQ has removed the treatment requirement without improving the limits.

“If there is going to be no treatment requirement, then there need to be strong limits,” Holleman continued. “These limits would protect Lake Norman and the people that drink its water and fish and recreate in the Lake from some of the worst pollutants, including arsenic and mercury.”

Duke Energy’s position

Bill Norton, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said in an email to CPP that the special order by consent is an important step that would help Duke move forward with permanently closing its coal ash basins.

“This agreement represents a critical step in our ongoing work to safely and permanently close ash basins in ways that protect people and the environment,” Norton said.

“The Special Order by Consent provides clarity on how natural or un-engineered seeps from ash basins will be monitored, and it paves the way for the state to issue nearly a dozen permits that the company must have before we can continue to dewater and close ash basins.”

Marshall permit changes

The Southern Environmental Law Center also filed public comments on Feb. 13 that address proposed changes to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for the Marshall steam station that those advocates say are “inconsistent with the requirements of North Carolina and federal law,” including extending the timeline for Duke to “comply with federal effluent limitation guidelines.”

The steam station is located in southeastern Catawba County at the northern end of Lake Norman on the Catawba River, near the Lincoln and Iredell county lines.

Any concerns about water quality at this upstream area of Lake Norman could potentially affect the water supply for several counties in the Charlotte metropolitan region.

“The crux of the public comments is that these can be good tools, but they lack accountability and monitoring required to safely deal with coal ash,” said Sam Perkins, in a phone interview with Carolina Public Press. Perkins a Catawba Riverkeeper, an advocate for the environmental integrity of the river and its sustainable use, affiliated with the nonprofit Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.

“Both proposals fail to set limits for, or monitor at all, contaminants we know to be associated with coal ash,” Perkins said.

Changes from previous draft proposal

Holleman said the new agreement, formed between the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Duke Energy, also eliminated important provisions that were included in a prior draft.

“The prior draft permit contained important limits on arsenic, mercury, selenium and nitrate pollution that Duke Energy would have been required to obey beginning in 2021,” Holleman said.

“Duke Energy conceded that it could meet that date.These are some of the most dangerous and toxic pollutants that come from operating coal-fired plants (and) Duke Energy then discharge(s) these dangerous removed air pollutants into our waterways through their wastewater systems.

“Lake Norman and the other waterways are important drinking water and recreational resources, and it is important to control these pollutants to the maximum extent possible. These pollution controls are called the Effluent Limitation Guidelines, and they were put in place in 2015 after years of study.

“DEQ has now postponed those protections until 2023 and has stated that it may never put them in place. DEQ’s stated reason is the fact that the Trump Administration has only said that it may weaken these protections. They remain the law today and the Trump Administration has yet to change them. Further, we do not believe that the Trump Administration could legally change them.

“It is hard to believe that DEQ would deny North Carolina communities and clean water protection from arsenic, mercury, and selenium based only on what the Trump Administration says it may do and may do illegally.”

Public hearings

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality will host a public hearing about the proposal at Gaston College in Dallas on Feb. 20 and at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington on Feb. 22.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may republish our stories for free, online or in print. Simply copy and paste the article contents from the box below. Note, some images and interactive features may not be included here.

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *