An environmental watchdog group hopes Duke Energy will clean up its coal ash ponds along the Saluda River — if not, the $50 billion utility could face more legal trouble over its Carolina operations.
Duke officials acknowledged Monday before the South Carolina’s Public Service Commission that heavy metals from its coal ash dumps at the W.S. Lee Steam Station near Williamston were leaching into the soil, but a spokesman later insisted the situation is being monitored.
“The coal ash facility at the W.S. Lee steam station is safe and inspected regularly by the company and outside agencies,” said Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier in an email to the Independent Mail.
Frank Holleman, the Greenville attorney who represented the Southern Environmental Law Center on Monday in front of the public service commission, said Duke Energy hasn’t paid enough attention to the problem.
“Duke representatives did seem unaware of Duke’s own groundwater testing that shows contamination from arsenic and other heavy metals around the retired ash basin on the Saluda River,” Holleman said Tuesday. “This illustrates the fact that, as at Dan River, Duke’s officials do not have complete information about Duke’s own coal ash storage sites and the threats that our clean water and the public face from them.”
Duke Energy faces multiple state and federal investigations stemming from the February ash pond spill on the Dan River. A containment dam in Eden, N.C., failed, spilling toxic sludge that has covered 70 miles of the river in North Carolina and Virginia. The ensuing bad publicity has led Duke President and CEO Lynn Good to reach out to customers:
“Following the events of the last few weeks, we want to regain your confidence. We are taking immediate action to ensure the safety of our ash basins companywide and are developing a plan for long-term management, including closure. Our highest priority is the safe operation of all of our facilities and the health and well-being of our communities.”
Duke is the only utility in the Carolinas that stores its coal ash in unlined pits, according to Holleman. The ash is typically captured from coal smoke, then mixed with water and dumped into pools, or lagoons. The ash can also be repurposed to manufacture concrete, depending on the grade of coal burned.
“The exhaust is scrubbed of pollutants, the stuff that used to cause acid rain,” explained Clemson biology professor Stephen Klaine.
Klaine said heavy metals are not typically found to leach out of these ponds at toxic levels. The big problems with unlined ponds come if the containment dams start to fail.
“When that happens, there is definitely going to be damage,” said Klaine, who studied the 2008 dam failure that released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash out of a Tennessee Valley Authority pond in Roane County, Tenn. “The ash forms a concrete-like barrier on the bottom of a stream and disrupts the smaller organisms” at the bottom of the food chain. “The ash produces a physical toxicity, makes fish gills abrasive and hard for them to breathe and you have heavy metal uptake through the food chain.”
Duke Energy is required under the Clean Water Act to test the soil and water around its coal ash sites and report the findings to the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“DHEC regulates these facilities. We monitor groundwater, surface water discharges and stormwater. Dam safety is also regulated,” said DHEC spokeswoman Lindsey Evans.
Holleman said DHEC could play a role going forward with the W.S. Lee station, but it had no part in previous Southern Environmental Law Center actions that led Santee Cooper and SCE&G to clean up their dump sites.
“Yes, the state agency (DHEC) could also enforce the state and federal clean water laws,” said Holleman. “It has not done so in the instances of the other utilities and we brought those actions. DHEC has not obstructed our enforcement, however, unlike the N.C. agency.”
Holleman was referring to a successful Southern Environmental Center lawsuit — before the February spill — that compelled North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to order Duke to clean up its coal ash dumps there. The U.S. Department of Justice has also begun an investigation into the regulatory relationship between Duke and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Over 20 aides of Gov. Pat McCrory — himself a Duke employee for 28 years — have been subpoenaed by DOJ investigators.
Holleman said the Southern Environmental Law Center could take Duke to court.
“If Duke does not take action, we will have to consider legal action and that is an option. Both South Carolina and federal law would require Duke Energy to clean up these lagoons, because of their past and continuing contamination of ground water and the Saluda River,” Holleman said.
Possibly complicating matters is a bill passed by the S.C. House earlier this month exempting Duke and other utilities from private lawsuits. The state Senate has yet to vote on the measure,
“We do not believe that the Senate will allow illegal polluters to have amnesty for their illegal activity and the harm that they do to our rivers and the public,” said Holleman.
Follow Michael Eads on Twitter @MikeEads_AIM