CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Protestors denounced Charlotte’s strong connections to coal this month, hanging banners from Bank of America Stadium, protesting outside the Duke Energy and Bank of America shareholders meetings and blocking a trainload of coal bound for Duke’s Marshall Steam Station west of Lake Norman.
The concerns range from mountaintop removal to global climate change. But for most Charlotte residents, the concern about coal and its residue, coal ash, is as close as the next drink of water.
If you take a sip of water in Charlotte, whether from the tap at home, from a drinking fountain or a restaurant, chances are that water came from Mountain Island Lake. Sitting beside the city’s primary source of drinking water: two ponds filled with coal ash. That’s why environmentalists and neighbors say Duke Energy should be doing more to make sure coal ash doesn’t contaminate Charlotte’s drinking water.
The ponds sit beside Riverbend Steam Station, one of Duke’s oldest, smallest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. From Airstar 36 you can easily see why the plant is named Riverbend.
“The river bends around it,” said Rhi Fionn-Bowman, who has reported on coal ash for publications like Creative Loafing and Charlotte Magazine. “It’s surrounded by water.”
Fionn-Bowman has taken to walking visitors through the woods near the plant site to see the ponds first hand.
“In the 1950’s the goal was to get the ash out of the air,” she added. “It was a solution to that problem. It’s what humans do. We bury our trash and try to forget about it, but 60 years later it's just outdated technology, really.”
To cut down on the amount of coal ash blowing out of the smokestacks, coal plants spray water on it and drain the residue into ponds. The result: a kind of soup of heavy metals – many of which are harmful to humans in higher concentrations.
Duke Energy reports that the water in the coal ash ponds is “treated” before it flows out into the lake.
“We do have a number of treatment processes in place,” said Erin Culbert, Duke Energy spokeswoman who took WCNC on a tour of the ponds near the Allen Steam Station in Belmont.
Duke has spent billions of dollars to retrofit coal-fired plants like Allen with scrubbers and other technology to make them cleaner than older plants.
Duke puts most coal ash in a landfill – not in ponds. And the company is lining the new disposal site so the residue does not leak into the groundwater.
“The ash basin is a settling pond much as you would find at other industrial facility,” said Culbert. The water flows directly into Lake Wylie, the source of drinking water for communities downstream of Charlotte, like Belmont, Tega Cay and Rock Hill.
“They do some settling but that is kind of the very most primitive form of treatment,” said Rick Gaskins, the acting Catawba Riverkeeper. Gaskins is upset about any coal ash but he is more disturbed by Riverbend.
“In most cases around Mountain Island Lake you're very restrictive about what you can do,” said Gaskins. “You can't store gas, yet you have two giant ash ponds discharging into it. It's crazy.”
Duke counters that it monitors the discharge repeatedly and meets all North Carolina state standards.
“Through the extensive decades of monitoring that Duke performs on our reservoirs, we continue to find the water quality along Lake Wylie and on the Catawba to be very stable,” said Culbert.
Unlike some environmental groups that have blasted Duke in high-profile protests, the Riverkeeper can be downright complimentary of some Duke efforts.
“Duke is pretty well run,” said Gaskin. “I think we're fortunate to have Duke and I commend Duke for a lot of the things they have done. Generally it’s a progressive, well run-utility. But that doesn't mean they're perfect and that doesn't mean some of the incentives they're given shouldn't be changed to encourage them to do more.”
When it comes to coal ash in particular, the Riverkeeper would like to see at least three things:
- Shut down older plants like Riverbend
- Remove and relocated existing coal ask and
- Independently monitor the outflow into lakes on the Catawba more closely.
Because when it comes to Mountain Island Lake, the drinking water for almost a million people depends on it.