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Duke Energy filings show additional groundwater pollution at coal ash sites

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Duke Energy filings show additional groundwater pollution at coal ash sites

Duke Energy Corp. identified additional groundwater pollutants at four coal ash sites in North Carolina, including at basins that the utility said do not need to be excavated.

In filings mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals rule, Duke Energy indicated that additional constituents were detected at levels above federal groundwater protection standards at its Belews Creek, Marshall, Roxboro and W.H. Weatherspoon ash basins. These chemical elements were identified as mercury at the Belews Creek site; barium at the Marshall site; lithium, radium 226 and radium 228 at Roxboro; and cobalt at W.H. Weatherspoon.

A batch of filings the company released in fall 2018 showed that all of its unlined coal ash basins in North Carolina and South Carolina are polluting groundwater.

"Duke Energy's coal ash is injecting a witch's brew of toxic pollutants into North Carolina's waters, and now Duke Energy admits that the nasty flow is even worse than previously reported," Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a May 30 news release. "Duke Energy needs to stop fighting North Carolina's people and North Carolina's government and start moving its toxic coal ash from these unlined, polluting pits to dry, lined storage out of our groundwater and away from our drinking water supplies."

Duke Energy filed petitions in late April challenging an order from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality that would require the company to excavate all of its coal ash sites in the state. The order requires Duke Energy Carolinas LLC and Duke Energy Progress LLC to excavate nine coal ash impoundments at the Belews Creek, G.G. Allen, Marshall, Mayo, Roxboro and James E. Rogers Energy Complex (Cliffside) power plants and place the coal combustion residuals in new or existing lined landfills.

Duke Energy is removing coal ash from 22 basins at eight coal plants in North Carolina, including Weatherspoon, but had planned to leave ash in place at the remaining sites.

Duke Energy has indicated that full excavation of these "low-risk" coal ash sites could add an incremental $4 billion to $5 billion to the current $5.6 billion estimate for ash management in the Carolinas. The company said this process will take significantly longer compared to capping in place, which it argues also is a safe method for managing ash that protects the environment and public health.

Duke Energy called the Southern Environmental Law Center's latest push "simply another effort to advance excavation where the science says it is not necessary."

"There's an organized effort by critics using fear to advance an extreme agenda that would do more harm than good. Enough is enough," Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton said in an email. "Drinking and recreational water supplies at these North Carolina sites are safe from coal ash impacts now, and our modeling shows that will continue to be the case in the future."

"This is highly localized groundwater right under or next to our ash basins," Norton added. "At the sites singled out by [the Southern Environmental Law Center], this groundwater moves only a few feet per year. We acknowledged this very limited impact years ago, and we committed to close our basins as a result."