Faced with state and advocates lawsuits, Duke Energy is beginning to waver on its long-held assertion that coal ash stored at its North Carolina power plants doesnt threaten public health.
Duke agreed last month to pay up to $1.8 million for a water line to a low-income community in the path of groundwater contamination from its Wilmington plant. The local water authority agreed to avoid tapping groundwater again in an area near the plant that is estimated to cover 17 square miles.
Later in October, state officials ordered Duke to supply water to an Asheville-area home whose well was apparently contaminated by ash from the power plant there.
This month, state officials tested four wells near Dukes Allen power plant on Lake Wylie in Gaston County. While officials dont expect to find ash contamination in those wells, residents who have lived near a closed ash basin for decades worry about their water.
Those places are on the leading edge of contamination investigations. After decades of ash slurries being dumped into open pits, state officials are just now assessing groundwater risks to power-plant neighbors.
Coal ash contains trace elements such as arsenic that can reach groundwater from unlined ash pits. High concentrations of those elements in drinking water, coupled with years of exposure, can cause cancer, organ and developmental problems.
Duke says its groundwater tests show no contaminants that pose health risks to the public. But elements in concentrations above state groundwater standards have been detected around ash ponds at all 14 of Dukes coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.
Still unsettled is how much came from natural sources, how much from ash and how far the contamination has spread.
Power plants generate massive quantities of ash. Much of it is recycled, but Dukes North Carolina plants store 84 million tons in wet form. The ponds settle heavy elements to the bottom but have no synthetic barriers between contaminants and groundwater.
Duke has retired six of its North Carolina coal plants and is moving toward disposal of dry ash in lined landfills at the remaining plants.
The company began voluntarily testing the groundwater around its ash ponds only in 2006, as part of an industry initiative. In 2010, after a massive spill of ash slurry in Tennessee, North Carolina began requiring tests within a 500-foot radius of the ash ponds.
North Carolina environmental groups, meanwhile, documented metal-laden water seeping from Dukes ash pond dikes into rivers and lakes. They want cleanups, not more study.
Groups filed notice in January that they would sue Duke over ash at its Asheville power plant. In March they did the same for the retired Riverbend plant west of Charlotte.
That seemed to jolt the state to action.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said ash poses a serious danger to public health and the environment in lawsuits it filed against Duke, in March and May, over contamination at Asheville and Riverbend. The two sides have proposed a settlement, but environmentalists oppose it.
In August, the state sued Duke over contamination from its remaining 12 coal-fired power plants. On Monday, a judge ruled the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation may become a party to a state lawsuit in regard to the Allen plant and the Marshall plant on Lake Norman.
The Catawba Riverkeeper has also sued Duke in federal court over Riverbends ash.
What we have seen is that the state is behind the curve on this, said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who represents the environmental groups.
Duke agreed to pay for the Wilmington pipeline in response to concerns from the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, not the state, Holleman noted. Advocates predict similar scenarios could play out in other communities near Dukes ash ponds.
All of them are threatened because at all sites the groundwater is contaminated and theres nothing to stop the movement of groundwater once it starts, said Donna Lisenby, the Boone-based global coal campaign coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national group.
Duke says the advocates anti-coal agenda gets in the way of objective analysis.
Most of the metals found in groundwater near its ash ponds occur naturally, Duke says. Detected most often are iron, which is not a health hazard, and manganese, an essential human nutrient that may cause neurological problems in high doses.
If we encounter situations where we feel or the state feels the companys operations have influenced groundwater in a way that could pose potential health risks, Duke Energy is going to take action, said spokeswoman Erin Culbert. Were going to do the right thing.
Evidence of contamination
Duke offered to pay for the water line near its Sutton power plant in Wilmington when evidence emerged that contamination could reach community wells. It was the first such response Duke has made to ash contamination in North Carolina, Culbert said.
Duke has previously taken similar steps near two power plants in Indiana.
Duke has no indications that other ash ponds pose health risks, Culbert said. Thats largely because groundwater typically flows toward the rivers and lakes that supply its power plants with cooling water.
But other evidence suggests Duke might have more to worry about.
• None of Dukes 13 active, 14 semi-active and four closed North Carolina ash ponds has liners to protect groundwater. Such ponds, used for decades, have a high probability of contaminated groundwater reaching or moving beyond the states 500-foot testing zone, the state Aquifer Protection Section says.
• The presence and concentrations of certain metals point to ash not natural sources at nine of Dukes 14 power plants, the state lawsuits say.
Groundwater at the Sutton plant shows concentrations of nine metals with ash fingerprints, state data shows. Dukes Marshall plant on Lake Norman and the Asheville plant are among others with contamination that is likely from ash, the state says.
• Duke University research reported in October found high concentrations of boron an ash element that leaches easily into groundwater in shallow groundwater around seven of 13 N.C. ash ponds. Boron is not a health hazard but is useful as a marker of ash contamination -- where it goes, other constituents are likely to follow.
Because boron was detected at levels up to 100 hundred times higher than normal, theres no way its not coming from the ash ponds, said Duke University scientist Avner Vengosh.
The Environmental Protection Agency counts four Carolinas cases among 42 proven examples of ash contamination.
Two involved Duke or the former Carolina Power & Light, now part of Duke. In both cases, selenium contamination killed fish in lakes beside the Roxboro and Belews Creek power plants in the 1970s and 1980s.
Two other cases involved S.C. Electric & Gas power plants.
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has detected metals seeping into Mountain Island Lake from Riverbends ash ponds, which are three miles upstream of Charlottes drinking-water intake. Duke University scientists documented high levels of arsenic, a coal element, in lake sediment near the ponds.
A key question for neighbors will be what happens to the ash once old plants like circa-1929 Riverbend shut down.
Duke says it will properly close the ponds and take whatever corrective action the state prescribes. The two options for closing a pond: bury the ash in place or, more expensively, dig it out for disposal in a lined landfill.
South Carolinas two largest utilities, Santee Cooper and S.C. Electric & Gas, agreed after environmentalists sued to remove their ash from power plants on the Waccamaw and Wateree rivers.
Expanded groundwater testing
The state-supervised groundwater sampling that began three years ago focused on a 500-foot radius around Dukes ash ponds called a compliance boundary.
Test wells were drilled between the ponds and neighboring water-supply wells in the expected direction groundwater would flow. To tease out whether contamination came from ash or natural sources, more wells sampled unaffected groundwater.
The N.C. Division of Water Resources says its trying to understand what lies beyond the 500-foot zone.
Were just at the beginning edge of moving forward outside the compliance boundary, said spokeswoman Susan Massengale. A lot of those facilities have been there a long time and were just starting to look at whats going on around them.
Duke agreed last month to install test wells beyond the boundary at its Sutton power plant in Wilmington to help gauge the expected flow of contaminated groundwater toward the Flemington community.
State regulators also ordered Duke in October to install wells outside the boundary at its Asheville plant.
We feel very comfortable that were taking all the necessary steps to have a comprehensive monitoring program around these compliance boundaries, Culbert said.
State looks for problems
The state says homes near 10 other Duke plants, including Riverbend and Marshall on Lake Norman, are not expected to have ash issues. Nearby property has no private wells, none in the expected path of groundwater flow or are on public water supplies.
The homes closest to Riverbend connect to city water lines, while those on the peninsulas eastern end rely on groundwater. Groundwater around Dukes ash ponds would likely move toward Mountain Island Lake, said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.
Two wells were tested near the Cliffside plant, 60 miles west of Charlotte, but showed no evidence of ash contamination.
One of five private wells sampled near the Asheville plant had iron and manganese levels above state drinking-water standards. The state ordered Duke to supply bottled water to that home, which lies between the plants ash pond and the French Broad River.
Results of groundwater tested near the Allen plant in Belmont wont be in for several weeks.
As the state investigates, it can rely on fewer in-house experts. The state water-quality staff, after budget cuts and reorganization, is expected to be 24 percent smaller by March than it was in early 2011.
That will likely force regulators to rely on self-reporting by Duke about ash issues, predicts Amy Adams, who this month quit her job as a regional water-quality supervisor in Washington, N.C.
Theres just too few inspectors with too many responsibilities to give 100 percent attention to anything, said Adams, who is now N.C. campaign coordinator of Appalachian Voices, a Boone-based advocacy group. The nuts and bolts of it is that theres not going to be enough inspectors to do the job.
An agreement on contamination at the Riverbend and Asheville power plants, which would resolve the state lawsuits involving those plants, is now before a Wake County judge.
Under the agreement, Duke would identify the sources and extent of the contamination at the plants, imminent threats to public health and survey surrounding private wells. Six months after the state approves that work, Duke would submit a plan to control migrating contamination and remove or control its sources.
The language mirrors existing state rules, but adds deadlines for completing the work and fines of up to $5,000 a day for missing them. It also would fine Duke $99,000.
Virtually all the nearly 5,000 public comments filed about the agreement this summer opposed the deal. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the environmental groups that have become parties to the lawsuits, said the agreement was structured to facilitate open-ended delay.
It is our position that this is not a settlement, because it does not say what Duke will do, said center attorney Holleman. Theyre basically saying, trust us.
Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender