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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina environmental regulators are again squaring off against environmental lawyers over who is really pushing Duke Energy to plug old leaky coal ash ponds.

Friday afternoon, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources sent Duke letters saying it would reopen permits that govern wastewater flowing from coal ash lagoons including two at Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake.

The Catawba Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center have complained for years that the ponds seep into lakes and streams and urged state regulators to take action.

But now that NC DENR is producing a flurry of paperwork, there s a fight about whether regulators are really loosening restrictions to permit more leaking.

NC DENR spokesman Drew Elliott says revisiting the permits (known as NPDES permits for permitted discharges into bodies of water) ...means we can put in conditions that require them (Duke) to stop those seeps.

But attorney Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center says the net effect of the most recent action will be to grant a kind of retroactive amnesty for the leaks and begin to test illegal leaks along with permitted discharges against clean water standards.

Nobody in their right mind would allow a waste water treatment plant to spring leaks next to a drinking water reservoir, Holleman told NBC Charlotte. The Riverbend Steam Station sits on Mountain Island Lake, the sole source of drinking water for almost 900,000 people in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.

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