Officials with Duke Power contend that the millions of tons of coal ash stored in lagoons along the banks of the Catawba River pose no threat to the river’s water quality. The problem is, if they’re wrong, the river might not get a second chance to recover.
American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, has ranked the Catawba the fifth-most endangered river in the nation. The eminent threat, according to the group, is contamination from elements found in coal ash.
A Duke University scientist and Mecklenburg County water officials have detected arsenic – a constituent of ash – in Mountain Island Lake, which is fed by the Catawba. Along the banks of the lake, Duke has stored 2.7 million tons of ash.
The company insists that the dams containing the ash are secure and that levels of arsenic and other contaminants found in the water are no threat to those who drink it. But the Riverkeeper Foundation, another group advocating for clean rivers, notes that fish consumption advisories due to mercury and PCB contamination have been issued on every Catawba reservoir on which Duke has an ash lagoon.
Granted, while mercury is found in ash, it also is commonly found in other substances. Both mercury and the toxic chemicals called PCBs are widespread pollutants.
Perhaps the key message is that constant vigilance is needed to ensure the protection of the river. Chemical pollutants aren’t the only threat; the Catawba also suffers from overuse, especially during periods of severe drought.
North and South Carolina need to continue to work together to ensure that large amounts of water are not transferred out of the river’s natural basin.
Mountain Lake Island is the water supply for 860,000 people. Lake Wylie serves hundreds of thousands more, and, as the Riverkeeper Foundation notes, most towns along the river have no backup water supplies, making oversight crucial.
The Catawba has made the American Rivers endangered list three times. This time is was No. 5, but in 2008, the last time it made the list, the Catawba was ranked as the most endangered river in the nation.
Conditions change, but population growth, periods of drought, industrial and residential development near the river, and a variety of other factors will continue to threaten the river. We can’t afford to assume that the earthen dams holding in the ash lagoons will always be secure or that other threats won’t endanger the river.
We’re thankful for American Rivers, the Riverkeeper Foundation and others who continue to keep a watchful eye over this invaluable natural resource.