Breaking: Duke Energy Caught Dumping Wastewater from Coal Ash Lagoon Into Local Watershed

March 10, Waterkeeper Alliance conducted an airplane flyover of the ash impoundments at the Duke Energy Cape Fear Plant. Photographs show Duke personnel using a portable water pump to empty its 1985 coal ash pond. The plant's Clean Water Act permit only authorizes discharges when the pond level overtops the vertical discharge pipe visible in the photo, in order to reduce discharges of toxic solids in the effluent. Photo credit Waterkeeper Alliance

March 10, Waterkeeper Alliance conducted an airplane flyover of the ash impoundments at the Duke Energy Cape Fear Plant. Photographs show Duke personnel using a portable water pump to empty its 1985 coal ash pond. The plant’s Clean Water Act permit only authorizes discharges when the pond level overtops the vertical discharge pipe visible in the photo, in order to reduce discharges of toxic solids in the effluent. Photo credit Waterkeeper Alliance

by Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear Riverkeeper / Ecowatch

Waterkeeper Alliance released aerial surveillance photos taken from a fixed-wing aircraft last week which show Duke Energy workers pumping wastewater from two of Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash lagoons into a canal that drains into the Cape Fear River.

The revelation comes less than two months after the Dan River disaster, where at least 30,000 tons of coal ash spilled from another of Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash lagoons. The pumping also came just days before a federal grand jury convenes in Raleigh to hear evidence in a criminal investigation of Duke Energy, the North Carolina Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the handling of coal ash. 

In these revealing stories in Sunday’s New York Times and Monday’s Los Angeles Times, Duke Energy admitted its workers were pumping coal ash wastewater out of a toxic wastewater pond and into a canal which drains into the Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear River is a source of public drinking water for residents in Fayetteville, Sanford, Dunn, Harnett County, Fort Bragg and Wilmington.

Even more startling, Duke Energy described the pumping of coal ash wastewater into a watershed as part of “routine maintenance.” The New York Times quoted Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks as saying: “They’re lowering the water to conduct the maintenance they need to.” According to the New York Times, Duke claims it notified state regulators—a claim that was contradicted by officials with DENR.

Duke Energy cannot lawfully discharge any pollutant to a waterway without a proper permit in place.

“To label the secret, unmitigated, intentional discharge of untold amounts of highly toxic wastewater as ‘routine maintenance’ seems ludicrous,” said Peter Harrison of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Here, Duke Energy has admitted that it deliberately emptied the contents of its ash ponds into the Cape Fear River watershed, just weeks after decimating at least 70 miles of the Dan River with its coal ash, and just days before it will appear in front of a federal grand jury for its suspected criminal activity related to its coal ash.”

DENR has indicated that Duke did not notify the agency prior to pumping the ponds, and that regulators noticed the pumping during a site visit on an unspecified day last week. “If DENR did not authorize Duke’s pumping, it would show an appalling disregard for the law and the welfare of North Carolinians,” Harrison added.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said, “I am gravely concerned that neither Duke nor DENR gave any public notice that untold gallons of concentrated untreated coal ash waste was deliberately dumped into the Cape Fear watershed. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians rely on the Cape Fear river for drinking water, fishing and swimming. We do not want heavy metals from coal ash in our river.”

Waterkeeper Alliance Global Coal Campaign Coordinator Donna Lisenby said, “Duke never obtained an official modification of its NPDES permit to allow the discharge the highly concentrated coal ash waste water from the bottom of their ponds into the Cape Fear river watershed—if it had happened through open channels, the public would have had a chance to object. This was either illegal, unilateral action by Duke—or a quiet backroom deal with DENR.  There is no evidence that any valid, publicly available permit allows them to discharge untold gallons of untreated concentrated coal ash waste water. Duke Energy should provide the specific language from the permit they claim allowed them to discharge highly concentrated untreated coal ash waste water into a standing body of water with almost no flow to dilute it.”

The Public Needs Answers

In light of these startling photos and initial response from Duke Energy, Waterkeeper Alliance and Cape Fear Riverkeeper call on Duke Energy and North Carolina DENR to clarify answers to these questions for the public:

  1. Precisely when did Duke notify DENR that they were going to pump coal ash water into the Cape Fear river watershed? Was it before or after Waterkeeper Alliance photos were provided to state regulators via a news reporter on March 11?

  1. Precisely when did DENR discover the pumping activity on a site visit last week? When did it intend to inform the public that a potentially staggering volume of coal ash wastewater had been dumped into the river? DENR should describe exactly what transpired on this alleged site visit when staff discovered the discharges.

  1. Has DENR actually issued a permit that allows Duke Energy to pump millions of gallons of concentrated untreated wastewater from two coal ash ponds simultaneously? If so, when was the permit issued? Was it before or after the Dan River spill? Was it before or after the criminal investigation was launched by federal investigators?

  1. How much of Duke Energy’s untreated coal ash wastewater entered the Cape Fear River? A “bathtub ring” visible in the aerial photos suggests the wastewater levels in both coal ash ponds had receded several feet by the time the photos were taken on Monday March 10. Given the size of the ponds, that means Duke potentially pumped millions of gallons of highly concentrated, untreated coal ash wastewater from two ponds prior to March 10. Did Duke measure the amount of wastewater pumped from the two coal ash lagoons? Did it test the untreated wastewater for the heavy metals commonly found in coal ash? If so, how much aluminum, arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, iron, lead, manganese, selenium, thallium and zinc did they dump upstream of the drinking water intakes of Fayetteville, Sanford, Dunn, Harnett County, Fort Bragg and Wilmington?

  1. Duke says this pumping was legal and permitted for “routine maintenance” by a permit. Can they provide a copy of the permit highlighting the specific language that allows them to pump millions of gallons of concentrated untreated coal ash wastewater from two coal ash ponds at the same time? Is pumping of coal ash wastewater using portable pumps a “routine?” How many times have they pumped coal ash water into public rivers from portable pumps? Can they provide a list of the locations of their other facilities in North Carolina that have used temporary pumps to dump untreated coal ash wastewater into waters of the state? Did they notify downstream drinking water providers and DENR before they did it? Did they measure the amount of untreated coal ash water they dumped into the public waters? Did they test it for heavy metals before they began pumping?

  1. Has Duke Energy ever before publicly acknowledged that they use portable pumps to dump coal ash water into into public waters?

Tags: , ,