Duke Energy Caught Dumping Toxic Wastewater

March 17, 2014

Duke Energy Caught Dumping Wastewater from Toxic Coal Ash Lagoon into Cape Fear River

Watershed Aerial surveillance photos show Duke pumping coal ash water into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, a drinking water source for Fayetteville, Sanford, Dunn, Harnett County, Fort Bragg and Wilmington

CONTACT:

Pete Harrison, Staff Attorney Waterkeeper Alliance
pharrison@waterkeeper.org, 828-582-0422

>> Photos available here.

On March 10, 2014, 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 1978 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.

On March 10, 2014, 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 1978 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.

MONCURE, NC – Waterkeeper Alliance has 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 NC 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.

A Sanford, NC pump station that supplies drinking water to 29,000 people draws water from the Cape Fear River less than 3 miles downstream of Duke Energy's leaking coal ash impoundments at the Cape Fear Plant. Municipal water pipes are shown in red.

A Sanford, NC pump station that supplies drinking water to 29,000 people draws water from the Cape Fear River less than 3 miles downstream of Duke Energy’s leaking coal ash impoundments at the Cape Fear Plant. Municipal water pipes are shown in red.

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 NC 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, 2014?

2. 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.

3. 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?

4. 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, 2014. 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 10th. 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?

5. 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 NC 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?

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

For public comments, media are invited to call or email the following Waterkeeper Alliance contacts:

Pete Harrison, Staff Attorney Waterkeeper Alliance
828-582-0422; pharrison@waterkeeper.org

Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator, Waterkeeper Alliance
828-297-3777; dlisenby@waterkeeper.org

Rick Dove, Photographer, Waterkeeper Alliance
252-447-5821; RDOVE@ec.rr.com

Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper
910-762-5606; kemp@cfrw.us

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Background:
Duke Energy retired the Cape Fear Plant in September 2012. That means the plant stopped adding coal ash into its ash ponds for at least 1 year and 5 months. Without the steady flow of millions of gallons of coal ash into the ponds, the wastewater in the impoundments began to evaporate and seep into groundwater. As the volume of waste in the pond decreases through evaporation and seepage, the toxic heavy metals commonly found in coal ash wastewater, such as aluminum, arsenic, boron cadmium, cobalt, copper, chromium, lead, iron, manganese, selenium, thallium and zinc, become increasingly concentrated.

When the Cape Fear Plant was operating, it discharged coal ash wastewater from the top of the ash ponds via vertical pipes in the ponds. These discharge structures were engineered to only allow water to exit the pond if water levels reached the tops of the pipes. Water that entered the discharge pipes would flow into a discharge canal where it mixed with millions of gallons of cooling water coming out of the plant. The canal flows parallel to the Cape Fear River before emptying into the river at several locations downstream.

In other words, the NPDES-permitted design of the coal ash discharge relies on two important things to prevent untreated concentrated heavy metals from entering the Cape Fear River and flowing downstream to the drinking water intakes of Sanford, Harnett County, Dunn, Fayetteville, Fort Bragg and Wilmington:

(1) an intake mechanism (the vertical pipe) that only discharges water from the top of the pond, and only when pond levels exceed the height of the pipe; and
(2) significant dilution by millions of gallons of river water after it passes through the plant’s once-through cooling water, which no longer occurs because the plant is retired.

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