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Roanoke River basin group goes after a coal-fired colossus
SoVaNow.com / March 20, 2017The Roanoke River Basin Association is preparing a federal lawsuit to compel Duke Energy to clean up coal ash storage lagoons at its massive Roxboro Steam Plant, one of the country’s largest coal-fired power stations, just south of the Halifax County line near Semora, N.C.
The RRBA’s legal partner, the Southern Virginia Environmental Law Center, alleges in a 60-day notice of intent to sue that Duke Energy has allowed dangerous levels of stored coal ash contaminants at the 2,422 megawatt power station to escape into Hyco Lake, which runs into the Dan River, part of the Roanoke River basin system.
The environmental law center issued notice of its intent to sue last week, March 13, in a 35-page letter to Duke and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Frank Holleman III, senior attorney for the SELC, said his organization and the RRBA are preparing the lawsuit because North Carolina DEQ “has not diligently prosecuted enforcement actions” against Duke Energy in state courts.
“Duke Energy is treating Hyco Lake like its own wastewater lagoon and polluting it with coal ash contaminants,” said Holleman. “Hyco Lake is a major recreational asset for the people of North Carolina and should be protected from Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution.”
Responding to the lawsuit threat, Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert said, “Here SELC goes again running to court when state and federal regulations are already in place for how to safely close ash basins.” She called the suit wasteful and an attempt to sidestep state regulations that deal effectively with the matter. “This federal suit is duplicative and redundant since the same issues are being heard in state court.”
The notice to Duke makes numerous allegations of illegal pollution at the four-unit Roxboro Steam Plant, which was built in 1966 and remains one of the 10 largest coal-fired generating stations in operation in the U.S. Its smaller sister facility, the Mayo Steam Plant, lies a short distance west in Person County, N.C., between South Boston and Roxboro. The Mayo plant is visible from U.S. 501 at the Virginia-North Carolina state line.
Toxic contaminants are leaking into Hyco Lake, alleges the SELC, from two major ash lagoons — the East Ash Basin and West Ash Basin, which were built in 1966 and 1973, respectively. Heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, bromide, selenium and thalium are seeping into the lake through openings in the rock dike that was erected to hold back the lagoons, and toxins also are escaping into nearby tributaries that feed Hyco Lake.
SELC also says groundwater contamination is rife around the power plant, the result of lagoons that were built decades ago without plastic liners to keep pollutants from getting into the water table. According to the SELC, measurements show that coal ash has reached 70 feet below the groundwater table, in violation of Duke Energy’s Clean Water Act discharge permit.
“In 2015, the owners of at least five drinking wells were told by the State not to use their water for drinking or cooking due to elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, among other pollutants,” states the March 13 notice to Duke. The letter further alleges that “radial flow outward from the coal ash basins … may be contaminating neighboring drinking wells on McGhees Mill Road and Dunnaway Road” near Semora.
In fact, claims the SELC, groundwater and surface water “pollution is currently contaminating the waters of the Roanoke River Basin, including a major downstream water supply, Kerr Lake.” Bromides in coal ash interact with chlorine used by water treatment plants to form brominated trihalomethanes, which are dangerous carcinogenic pollutants. “Elevated levels of bromides have been detected in Hyco Lake near the Roxboro plant,” the letter continues.
“Downstream of the Roxboro site, numerous water systems that withdraw water from Kerr Lake — including the Clarksville water system in Virginia and the Kerr Lake Regional Water System, which serves Henderson, Oxford, and other North Carolina communities — have experienced problems with elevated levels of trihalomethanes in their drinking water,” the SELC alleges.
In yet another claim, the SELC says the West Ash Basin illegally lies in a 100-year flood plain. The second of the two lagoons was built in 1973 by Carolina Power & Light, forerunner to Duke. The law center says the flood plain location for the coal ash lagoon is confirmed by North Carolina and FEMA flood plain maps and by Duke itself.
While the notice to sue does not spell out specific actions that SELC and the RRBA will request in federal court, environmental groups have pushed Duke to dig up and haul away coal ash wastes at other power plants in North Carolina — including at the decommissioned Eden Steam Station, site of a 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River.
In 2015, Duke pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act for pollution at five coal-fired plants in North Carolina, including the Eden site. The Charlotte-based utility agreed to drain and excavate coal lagoons at the power stations and pay $68 million in fines and $34 million on environmental projects and land conservation that would benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia.
Neither the Roxboro Steam Plant nor the Mayo Steam Plant were covered by the court order. A subsequent court order, agreed to by Duke, mandated the removal of coal ash wastes at the three more power plants in North Carolina.
“We have compelled Duke Energy to clean up 8 of its 14 sites in North Carolina,” said Holleman, “but the Hyco site was not previously subject to any cleanup agreement.”
Duke spokesperson Culbert said the utility is looking at a different solution for dealing with coal wastes at the Roxboro and Mayo plants — by capping the lagoons with impenetrable liners to protect nearby surface waters and groundwater. She called the SELC’s call for excavation of the lagoons “the most extreme and disruptive closure approach,” Culbert said. Even the EPA accepts “capping in place” as a less intrusive method for handling coal ash impoundments, she added.
“Capping can be completed much faster and with much less impact to the environment, community and our customers,” Culbert said.
She further emphasized that the “Hyco Reservoir has good water quality and is home to a thriving fish population. We meet strict state permit limits that are designed to protect water quality and the environment.
“Ash basins are being closed in ways that protect people and the environment. Any closure plan must protect the environment and communities we serve,” said Culbert.
The letter to Duke providing notice of the pending lawsuit notes that the SELC and RRBA are preparing to go to U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina to seek “injunctive relief, appropriate monetary penalties, fees and costs of litigation, and such other relief as the Court deems necessary.”
The Roanoke River Basin Association, a non-profit organization formed in 1945, seeks to preserve and enhance of the Roanoke River basin system, which includes the Dan River, Staunton River, Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston and tributaries such as the Hyco, Mayo and Banister Rivers. The organization has been active in numerous battles over the years, from uranium mining in Pittsylvania County to interbasin transfers of water via pipeline construction to the recent litigation arising from the Dan River coal ash spill, one of the worst in the nation’s history.
Copies of the March 13 letter of intent to Duke were sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to North Carolina’s Attorney General, and to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The agency was known as NCDENR — for Department of Environment and Natural Resources — under the administration of former Republican North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who was widely criticized by environmentalists for lax enforcement of environmental laws. Holleman said he was hopeful that DEQ would take a more vigorous watchdog approach under North Carolina’s new governor, Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Holleman also called EPA an “important backstop” in past fights to get Duke to clean up coal ash ponds because of the enforcement tools that the agency has at its disposal, but he said he was not as optimistic that today’s EPA in the Trump Administration would be as helpful.
CommentsSome more of:The RRBA’s legal partner, the Southern Virginia Environmental Law Center, BS. It will only make Duke power pass the legal costs to the power customers and the lawsuit is about nothing since the company is complying with all regulations. The environmental law center folks and, Robert Kennedy, just bring down communities and areas by harassing businesses.
- By BS on 03 / 20 / 17
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