2 groups allege Duke polluting Mountain Island Lake

slyttle@charlotteobserver.comMarch 29, 2013 

Two environmental groups have accused Duke Energy of polluting Mountain Island Lake, the source of Charlotte’s drinking water supply, and have threatened to sue the utility company.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation said Tuesday they have given 60 days’ notice to Duke Energy, claiming they will sue under the Clean Water Act.

The two agencies successfully sued a South Carolina utility company last year under similar conditions.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation allege Duke Energy is dumping coal ash from its Riverbend power plant northwest of Charlotte into two lagoons, and that water from the lagoons is leaking into the nearby Catawba River and Mountain Island Lake. They say the coal ash contains chemicals that are known carcinogens or can damage the central nervous system.

A spokeswoman for Duke Energy said Tuesday morning that the company has not seen the complaint and will refrain from commenting until it can study the issues.

The action comes one week after the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources ruled that Progress Energy, which merged last year with Duke Energy, is violating state and federal law because of discharges from coal ash lagoons at the Skyland plant near Asheville.

The SELC initiated action in that case.

Frank Holleman of the SELC said the organization is representing Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, which Holleman says has been monitoring the Riverbend lagoons and has brought the situation to Duke’s attention. The energy company has not taken any action, the environmental groups say.

Catawba Riverkeeper says Duke Energy has two coal ash lagoons at the Riverbend plant. According to the complaint, the lagoons contain millions of tons of coal ash and are separated from the lake by an 80-foot-tall earthen berm. That berm is leaking, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation says.

In addition to leaking into the lake, the coal ash is leaking into groundwater at the site, the two groups say. The complaint alleges that the pollution contains arsenic, cobalt, boron and several other potentially dangerous chemicals.

“Duke should not be storing toxic coal ash in unlined lagoons beside Charlotte’s drinking water reservoir,” said Holleman, senior attorney for the SELC. “If there was ever a place where it is irresponsible to store coal ash, this is it.

“Duke should remove its toxic ash to a lined landfill, away from drinking water, and remove pollutants from the groundwater.”

The SELC said the notice also was sent to the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, and to the EPA. If Duke does not stop pollution within 60 days, Holleman said, his organization and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation will file suit in federal court.

Rick Gaskins, of Catawba Riverkeeper, said the organization believes “it is long past time that Duke moved its coal ash away from Mountain Island Lake, and stopped discharging toxic substances into Charlotte’s drinking water reservoir.”

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation contends its tests show Duke is discharging arsenic into Mountain Island Lake at twice the “applicable standard”; cobalt at 52 times the standard; and manganese at 128 times the standard.

Arsenic has been proven in numerous tests to cause cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says tests have shown that cobalt is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Some studies also have shown that manganese can damage the nervous system.

The SELC and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation successfully sued South Carolina Energy and Gas last year, forcing the utility to move its 2.4 million tons of coal ash from unlined lagoons at its Wateree Station near Columbia to a lined landfill elsewhere on plant property. At the time, the two organizations said they feared the coal ash had polluted the Wateree River.

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