Several North Carolina environmental groups recently asked the state to reexamine current legislation and tighten restrictions on coal ash disposal, saying that many storage sites have been leaking toxic substances and contaminating local groundwater for decades, constituting a major threat to public and environmental health.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the request with the N.C. Environmental Management Commission on Oct. 10, citing several sites where they said the commission should require corrective action. The Commission met to discuss the request on Nov. 8.
"All of North Carolina's ash ponds that have monitoring wells and test data are showing that they're leaking heavy metals in the groundwater," said Donna Lisenby, member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, one of the conservation organizations involved in making the request.
These toxic chemicals are being found in concentrations far exceeding typical state standards at 14 coal ash ponds across the state, Lisenby said in an interview. She said environmentalists have met with the commission three times in the past, but no action has been taken yet. "This has been going on for years," she said.
Lisenby said this is a serious problem because coal ash can cause serious health problems by spreading to the air, wells and surface water.
Kelly Martin, representative of the Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club in North Carolina, said, "The chemicals that are in coal ash have the potential to harm every organ in our bodies if ingested." They can also damage aquatic wildlife by getting into creeks and streams, she said in an interview.
Martin said the operators of the ponds, Duke Energy and Progress Energy, and the state are all aware of the pollution, but they haven't done anything. "I think the state should require each facility to clean up the coal ash ponds."
Lisenby said the government has always been lenient with its regulation of the coal industry. "[The Waterkeeper Alliance] in North Carolina wants the utility industry to have to play by the same rules as everyone else," she said.
Duke denies claims of preferential treatment
Spokeswoman Erin Culbert for Duke Energy said the groups filing the request are exaggerating and oversimplifying the data. "In typical fashion, these organizations draw health conclusions that are not based in fact and well overstate the risks to communities from coal ash storage," Culbert said in an email interview.
Culbert said that the utilities have worked extensively with the state to monitor pollution. "Duke Energy and Progress Energy have been sampling groundwater around their ash basins for years, and all that data have been reported to state regulators along the way," she said.
Culbert said that many of the exceedances involve only chemicals like iron and manganese, which aren't toxic, and the high concentrations often aren't the fault of the utility industry. "These constituents often occur naturally at elevated levels independent of any influence by ash basins," she said.
"It's also important to note that an exceedance at or near the ash basin does not mean groundwater off the site has been or would be impacted," Culbert said. If an increase in these chemicals was found in local groundwater away from the individual sites, the companies would work with the state to resolve the problem, she said.
"Duke Energy continues to be committed to managing coal ash responsibly at all our plants," Culbert said.
Martin said new coal ash facilities in North Carolina are allowed to contaminate groundwater within a certain boundary, but old sites are supposed to clean up and eliminate the source of pollution if contaminants are found in the groundwater at the ash basin itself.
"The state has been treating [these coal ash basins] as if they are newer facilities," Martin said. "Most of them were built when the coal-fired power plants were built back in the 1960s."
Martin said the purpose of the complaint with the commission is to make the commission look closer at the law and clarify its position.
"It is high time for Duke and Progress to take responsibility for the contamination and for the threat they're posing to our health and our communities and clean up the coal ash ponds," Martin said.
The Commission voted at the November meeting to hold a full public hearing on the issue in Raleigh on Dec. 3.