Group wants contamination from coal ash ponds cleaned up at Buck Steam Station, other plants
By Emily Ford
SPENCER — Environmentalists this week asked the N.C. Environmental Management Commission to require Duke Energy to clean up groundwater contamination near coal ash ponds at 14 coal-fired power plants, including Buck Steam Station.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the complaint with the state on behalf of the Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.
The ash ponds have been leaking toxic substances for decades, said D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Coal ash is what remains after coal is burned. Buck Steam in Spencer has two large ash ponds.
Environmental groups filed the request because the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not required Duke and Progress Energy to clean up acknowledged contamination.
Self-monitoring by Progress and Duke confirms contamination around ash ponds at Buck and 13 other facilities across the state.
The contamination has been within the “compliance boundary,” or a 500-foot radius around the ash ponds. Power plants aren’t required to clean up pollution inside the boundary.
The law center wants the Environmental Management Commission to interpret state rules differently and require the power companies to clean up contamination inside the boundary.
The state’s Division of Water Quality has been working for several years to determine the source of groundwater contamination near ash ponds, spokeswoman Susan Massengale said.
Groundwater is slow-moving, she said.
“You need to look at things over time to see trends and patterns,” Massengale said. “In some wells, one sampling event was contaminated but later, we did not see it.”
Massengale said state officials are working to trace the sources of contamination. Some substances in coal ash also occur naturally in soil, she said.
In the state filing, the environmental groups draw health conclusions that are not based in fact and overstate the risks to communities from coal ash storage, said Erin Culbert, Duke spokeswoman.
Most instances of groundwater standards exceeding allowable limits involve iron and manganese, which often occur naturally at elevated levels, Culbert said.
“Iron and manganese influence taste and odor of drinking water but present no health risks,” she said.
At Buck Steam Station, the most recent samples from July show sporadic elevated levels of iron and manganese, said Andrew Pitner, environmental program supervisor for the Division of Water Quality in Mooresville.
Buck had one well with an elevated level of boron. Another well showed elevated levels of sulfate and total dissolved solids.
Duke Energy samples for 20 inorganic compounds. Buck has not exceeded allowable levels for arsenic, selenium, mercury and the other parameters, Pitner said.
An elevated level of a compound near the ash basin does not mean groundwater offsite would be contaminated, Culbert said.
“If our testing were to show any indication that neighbors’ groundwater was being impacted, we would work with state regulators to address and resolve the problem,” she said.
Buck has several wells on the compliance boundary. The northern well, which is farthest from private wells used for drinking water, most often shows an elevated level of compounds, Pitner said.
There are roughly two dozen private wells to the south and east of Buck. Because of topography at the site, groundwater flows north to High Rock Lake, Pitner said.
Pitner said his office has reviewed sampling data from several public wells near Buck’s ash ponds, including Duke Energy’s own well that provides drinking water for employees at the power plant. The public wells had no issues, he said.
The state has not tested private wells in the vicinity of Buck.
Well owners, wherever they live in North Carolina, are responsible for their drinking water, Pitner said.
The Rowan County Health Department provides affordable well-water testing, he said, although the department may not test for all 20 inorganic compounds being monitored near ash ponds.
Pitner said he recommends testing well water for inorganic compounds every few years.
In general, well users should have their water tested any time they notice a change in taste, odor or appearance, he said.
Duke will eventually close the ash ponds at Buck Steam Station, where Duke has built a $600 million combined cycle power plant that uses both natural gas and steam to create electricity.
The two remaining coal-fired units at Buck are scheduled to be shut down by 2015.
Coal ash ponds came to national attention in 2008 when a dam burst at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant and spilled coal ash waste slurry through nearby homes and into the Emory River in Tennessee.
Contamination from coal ash ponds at 14 NC power plants
L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington
Asheville Power Station in Arden
Allen Steam Station in Belmont
Belews Creek Steam Station in Belews Creek
Buck Steam Station in Spencer
Cliffside Steam Station in Mooresboro
Dan River Steam Station in Eden
Marshall Steam Station in Terrell
Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly
Cape Fear Power Station in Moncure
Lee Power Station in Goldsboro
Mayo Power Station in Roxboro
Roxboro Power Station in Semora
W.H. Weatherspoon Power Station in Lumberton
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.