As you may know, the DENR Division of Water Resources regulates wastewater discharged from coal ash ponds to state waters, stream and lakes and investigates, monitors and regulates remediation of groundwater pollution. Coal ash pollution contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, neurological disorders, asthma, and other illnesses. Coal ash pollution can seep into groundwater; especially if stored in unlined ponds. In the past month several stories about coal ash and groundwater pollution in North Carolina have popped up. Two communities, one near Wilmington and one near Asheville, are facing possible well contamination from coal ash.
Duke Energy operates two unlined coal ash ponds covering 110 acres at the the Sutton coal-burning steam plant in Wilmington, NC. Flemington is a community located off US-421 in Wilmington, near the Sutton plant that is facing groundwater pollution concerns for the second time. The groundwater in the area flows from the Sutton plant towards Flemington. Back in the 1980’s a now-closed county landfill contaminated private wells in the community and so the county had to drill new wells for some residents. Now, decades later, the local water authority and Duke Energy have agreed to share the cost of monitoring wells and extending water lines to the community because the Sutton coal ash ponds may, eventually, contaminate the wells. For good local coverage of this issue see the Star News and Port City Daily stories.
It is good that the Cape Fear water authority and Duke Energy are working on ensuring that Flemington gets safe drinking water, but it would be even better if the coal ash pollution could be cleaned up and disposed of in the safest manner possible so that the threat of more groundwater contamination is mitigated. This is the kind of problem that could be avoided with strong state water quality regulations and strong enforcement by DENR. It’s been reported that Duke Energy has a plan for the closure of the coal ash ponds at Sutton as part of the plant’s closure and conversion from coal to natural gas but plan details are hazy. It is Duke Energy’s responsibility to provide this to the state as part of its overall closure plan.
Flemington isn’t the only community in North Carolina that is facing the threat of contaminated well water due to coal ash. Groundwater contamination was recently found in a residential well located in between the French Broad River and Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds for the company’s Asheville Plant. Last week, DENR directed Duke Energy to supply alternative drinking water to an Arden home after tests revealed that the residential well is contaminated. And, DENR has asked Duke Energy to install off-site monitoring wells in the area to determine the extent of chemical contamination. Again, like in Flemington, it is good that DENR is getting safe drinking water to citizens with contaminated wells and requiring more water testing but what is being done to clean up groundwater and prevent more groundwater pollution?
The risk of groundwater becoming contaminated by coal ash pollution can be reduced by drying out the wet ash and transferring it into dry storage in lined landfills. North Carolina should develop standards for coal ash disposal to ensure best practices for protection of our surface and groundwater resources. And, the state should request a coal ash pond closure plan for Sutton from Duke Energy and make the plan available to the public for input.
In August, the Sierra Club filed a request to join in a lawsuit that DENR brought against Duke Energy over groundwater pollution from coal ash at the Sutton plant to ensure that the state requires a full and proper clean up. Coal ash is not yet subject to federal protections but is currently in a kind of legal limbo. We are waiting for the EPA to promulgate rules for management of coal ash. A federal court has ordered the EPA to issue such rules but there is no time frame for when these will be completed.
Please contact Zak Keith, our organizer in Wilmington, NC, if you would like to join the Cape Fear Group‘s upcoming conservation outing on Saturday November 9th to boat down the Cape Fear River, see the Sutton power plant and learn more about coal ash. And, please contact GovernorMcCrory to urge him to ensure that North Carolina’s surface and groundwater resources are protected.
Cassie Gavin, Director of Government Relations
Sierra Club – NC Chapter
19 W. Hargett Street, Suite 210
Raleigh, NC 27601
919.833.8467 x 104