The Catawba Riverkeeper continues the battle with Duke Energy over coal ash discharge into the Catawba River on Tuesday.

The deadline for the public to comment on a proposed permit for Duke Energy is Friday. Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said the permit fails to meet basic monitoring requirements for contaminants known to be present at high levels in coal ash.

He said that’s particularly concerning since Lake Wylie is a drinking reservoir for more than a hundred thousand people.

"Public comment is extremely valuable, and needs to be made," Perkins said.

Perkins told NBC Charlotte the public needs to weigh in to let officials know this is still an important issue.

"This permit is a really key opportunity to get some protections in place so that this site is not discharging near as much pollutants that it has over the years," said Perkins.

Perkins said neither Duke nor the Department of Environmental Quality have learned lessons from past issues with coal ash.

"There are literally blanks in the permit, meaning Duke is still allowed to discharge unlimited amounts of things like arsenic, mercury, and selenium," Perkins said.

Duke Energy said the permit does require routine monitoring of those substances. However there is no prescribed limit. Duke said because the amount it releases does not present a risk to water quality in the lake.

Duke released a statement saying, “Strict standards in the draft permit ensure that Lake Wylie remains protected for all who rely on it. To say the draft permit allows unlimited pollution is inaccurate and deliberately misleading.”

Erin Culbert, Corporate Communications, Duke Energy, issued this statement in response to the riverkeeper's press release:

Main thoughts on draft permit

  • It’s ironic that special interest groups are opposing the very permits that are essential to move forward with safely closing ash basins.
  • Strict standards in the draft permit ensure that Lake Wylie remains protected for all who rely on it. The elaborate process state regulators use to determine protective limits is consistent with federal guidelines that apply to countless businesses across the nation.
  • This draft permit has important new provisions. It regulates certain seeps, requiring rigorous testing and monitoring of that water. It also provides a framework to safely remove water from the ash basins, an essential step for closure and an effective way to reduce or eliminate many seeps. Side note: the recently approved Special Order by Consent also regulates other types of seeps.
  • For example, as we remove water from the ash basins, we’ll be continuously monitoring for solids during pumping. Pumping would automatically shut off if the water reaches a threshold set to protect the lake. If we have challenges meeting permit limits, the draft permit notes that we would need to install a separate physical-chemical treatment system if necessary (page 6 of 25 in draft Allen permit.)
  • Why don’t some substances have permit limits? There are federal and state rules that determine which pollutants have limits in a wastewater discharge permit. NCDEQ follows these rules, applying the limits required by law. EPA typically sets limits only for certain parameters and uses those parameters to serve as indicators of others that aren’t limited. State regulators also can include specific limits when there is a reasonable potential to exceed state water quality standards. In other words, it’s not necessary to set a permit limit when testing demonstrates the amount from the permitted discharge is so small that water quality and the public are well protected. To say the draft permit allows “unlimited pollution” is inaccurate and deliberately misleading. This is a very basic premise of calculating permits. If the riverkeeper objects to that premise, his issue is with the EPA and permits all over the nation. (DEQ drafted the permit, so I’d highly encourage you to connect with them so they can explain how it protects the lake.)

Other items in the news release

  • “A complete lack of monitoring, discharge limits, and sufficient monitoring frequency for pollutants like selenium, arsenic and mercury.” This is false. The draft permit absolutely requires routine monitoring for many substances, including selenium, arsenic and mercury. It does not have a prescribed limit for some, as noted above, because the amount we release does not present a risk to water quality in the lake.
  • “Furthermore, the permit fails to even require monitoring of contaminants like cobalt, hexavalent chromium, vanadium, radioactivity (radium 226/228) and others that Duke itself has found to be present around its sites above water quality standards.”
  • Duke Energy has tested its wastewater, and the results indicate that these substances are not present in quantities that would threaten water quality.
  • Substances like hexavalent chromium, vanadium and radium are not prevalent in coal ash. Data from many other sources show that these are much more naturally occurring from Piedmont geology. See our Lake Norman water quality fact sheet (includes recent testing on Wylie), as well as maps below.
  • “In recent years, Duke has acknowledged its coal ash sites have both engineered and uncontrolled seeps discharging from its unlined coal ash ponds.”
  • We have already agreed in the Special Order by Consent to eliminate seeps at Allen. The most effective way to do that is to remove water from the basins, which is exactly the purpose of this permit.
  • The draft permit includes engineered seeps so that they can be monitored and controlled.
  • Seeps represent small amounts of water, and testing in the nearby rivers and lakes show they do not impact water quality. We regularly inspect, test, monitor and report seeps – and perform any necessary maintenance – to ensure basin dams are safe.
  • DEQ’s fact sheet says, “Seepage through earthen dams is common and is an expected consequence of impounding water with an earthen embankment. Even the tightest, best-compacted clays cannot prevent some water from seeping through them.”
  • “But in the 2016 law, North Carolina said Duke could leave coal ash in place if Duke ran municipal water to neighbors with contaminated groundwater…”
  • There continues to be no indication that ash basin neighbors’ wells have been impacted by coal ash. Not only does groundwater at the Allen plant flow away from neighbors’ wells, state testing of their well water shows no potential signs of coal ash influence. See well testing fact sheet. We supported state legislation to provide permanent water supplies to plant neighbors—whether impacted or not—so they would have confidence in their drinking water after receiving conflicting guidance about water safety.
  • “Meanwhile, other utilities – like those next door in South Carolina – have realized the risk that old, unlined coal ash piles pose, and they have employed the common sense solution: move unlined, leaking coal ash away from water and recycle it into concrete.”
  • Basin closure decisions are not related to this permit; rather, state law outlines a specific process for closure plan approval that includes DEQ review and public input.
  • It’s critical that we use science and engineering to guide basin closure decisions. We’ve recommended excavating some ash basins in North Carolina, recycling at some and closing others in place based on site conditions. For the ash basins at the Allen plant, excavation would represent more than two decades of truck trips to relocate that material. Not only does that far exceed state and federal deadlines, it burdens the local community with air emissions, disruption and safety risks while impacting the broader environment. Full excavation when not warranted by science also signs up families for higher electric bills unnecessarily. We’re seeking to close basins safely in ways that protect communities and the environment, while managing costs for customers.

USGS maps below show elements like chromium and vanadium occur naturally in NC soils and groundwater. A 2016 Duke University study demonstrated hex chrome is not originating from ash basins but geology in our region. The riverkeeper refuses to accept these facts, because they don’t advance his agenda to burden North Carolina with the most extreme, most disruptive way to close ash basins—with little to no proven environmental benefit. The US EPA expects most ash basins in the nation to be closed by safely capping them in place.

Photo: Duke Energy
Photo: Duke Energy

Catawba Riverkeeper Press Release Allen Coal Ash Discharge Permit 2018 by stpreps on Scribd