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Environmental group: River contains elevated arsenic levels

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A state environmental group is using water quality tests released Tuesday to argue that Duke Energy is polluting the Yadkin River with discharges from the company’s coal ash ponds.

Test results released by the Southern Environmental Law Center show arsenic levels in a portion of the Yadkin River at four times water safety standards. The tests occurred at the spot where coal ash ponds discharge water into the Yadkin River. In the results, arsenic levels were 43.5 parts per billion. The state surface water standard is 10 parts per billion.

Other chemicals detected at elevated levels include aluminum, copper and lead.

It’s the latest step in a legal battle between the Yadkin Riverkeeper — represented in court by the SELC — and Duke Energy. Filed in 2014, the Riverkeeper’s suit alleges that Duke Energy is violating the Clean Water Act. The tests were conducted as part of a discovery process in the suit. Results are further confirmation of something Duke Energy has known for years, said SELC attorney Frank Holleman.

“Coal ash pollution is leaking out of its coal ash pits and into surrounding waters,” Holleman said in a news release. “The Buck site is the only retired coal plant site in the state where Duke Energy has not agreed to excavate its coal ash. It’s time for Duke Energy to stop covering up its pollution at the Buck site, and start removing its coal ash from these leaking, unlined pits.”

When asked about the tests, Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said the discharges are proof that coal ash should be excavated, not capped in place.

“These test results show that Duke Energy is discharging so much arsenic into the Yadkin River that the river water itself has arsenic levels above the standards meant to protect human and aquatic health,” Scott said.

A letter from Pace Analytical Services, the company who conducted the tests, says samples of water were taken on Aug. 18. The letter — sent to Duke Energy, the SELC and attorneys —is dated Aug. 31.

When asked about the tests, Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert drew attention to the location that tests occurred, immediately at the spot where the company is permitted to discharge water from its coal ash ponds. If tests were truly representative of water quality, they would have occurred farther from the permitted site, she said. The company isn’t in violation of its state permit, Culbert said.

“They failed to sample true river quality and purposefully ignored the zone where permitted wastewater is allowed to be released,” she said. “We carefully monitor permitted discharges as required by the state and report those. Samples taken in the Yadkin River itself show that water quality remains well protected.”

The arsenic levels “are no cause for alarm,” and it’s “another example of their attempts to mislead the public with inaccurate information,” she said.

The test results have not yet been submitted to the U.S. Middle District Court for North Carolina, where the Riverkeeper’s lawsuit was filed.

Questions about levels of chemicals seeping into the Yadkin River are separate from the ongoing controversy about well water contamination in communities such as Dukeville.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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