CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Lawsuits filed Friday by North Carolina’s environment department seek injunctions against 12 Duke Energy coal-fired power plants where ash has polluted water.
The actions mirror earlier state suits against Duke’s Riverbend plant northwest of Charlotte and its Asheville plant. All 14 of Duke’s North Carolina coal plants are now the targets of state litigation.
The two lawsuits filed in Mecklenburg and Wake counties Friday cite groundwater pollution at all 12 of the plants and illegal seepage from ash ponds at most of them. Among them are Allen on Lake Wylie in Gaston County and Marshall on Lake Norman in Catawba County.
Ash contains metals that can be toxic in high doses. The lawsuits cite a number of elements – including arsenic, boron, selenium and thallium – that occur naturally but whose presence at the plants indicate a link to ash.
The suits say ash violations, if not corrected, “pose a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state.”
Friday’s filings “confirm what we had been saying, that coal ash disposal is being conducted illegally and is polluting North Carolina’s natural resources,” said senior attorney Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and other environmental groups.
“It would have been appropriate for the department to have conferred with the conservation groups that brought this to their attention.”
The groups contend the Department of Environment and Natural Resources knew about the pollution for years but did nothing until prodded to action by their threats to sue Duke on their own.
Duke Energy, in response, repeated its defense that its plants comply with water-discharge permits.
“State regulators are requesting more data to ensure waters of the state are well protected,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said. “However, this action does not indicate that water quality has changed dramatically over the decades these plants have operated safely.”
Duke will retire seven of the 14 coal plants by the end of the year – Riverbend closed in April – and says it will “properly close” the plants’ ash ponds. Duke has not said whether the ash will be removed from the closed ponds, as environmental advocates want, or entombed in place.
Ash at newer plants is increasingly handled in dry form and stored in lined landfills instead of ponds.
The state proposed a settlement to the Riverbend and Asheville lawsuits in July. If approved by the court, Duke would pay a $99,000 fine and agree to assess the sources and extent of contamination at both plants.
The settlements were open for public comment for 30 days. By Tuesday, a day before that deadline, the environment department said it had received 207 individual letters and 4,421 form letters.
This week, a Wake County judge allowed the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and three other groups to become formal parties to the settlements. That gives the groups a say in the agreements’ final form.
Apart from Allen and Marshall, the power plants named Friday are Cliffside in Rutherford County; Buck in Rowan County; Belews Creek in Stokes County; Dan River in Rockingham County; Cape Fear in Chatham County; Lee in Wayne County; Mayo and Roxboro in Person County; Sutton in New Hanover County and Weatherspoon in Robeson County.
The state’s lawsuits prevent environmental advocates from filing litigation over the same issues. But they leave an opening for the groups to file suit on claims the state has not addressed, Holleman said, such as selenium pollution of a lake near the Sutton plant.