Response to Duke Energy’s Statement on the Catawba River Coal Ash Ponds


It is our understanding that Duke Energy issued a preemptive statement on April 16, 2013 in anticipation of American Rivers’ designation of the Catawba River as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®.  Rick Gaskins, Executive Director and Catawba Riverkeeper, provides a section-by-section response to Duke’s statement below in italics. 


Duke Energy Statement:

It’s disappointing that American Rivers and its partners continue to bait the public and play on emotions to further their own agenda. This does nothing to serve the Catawba River. While they focus on promoting unfounded gimmicks, we will continue to collaborate with the 18 public drinking water utilities along the river who are taking real action to protect our water supply for this and future generations.    

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

The Catawba River is the primary source of drinking water for approximately 1.7 million people.  Unlike many other parts of the United States, most towns along the Catawba River (including Charlotte) do not have a backup source of water other than the Catawba River that can meet all of their water supply needs.  Thus, the health of the Catawba River is critically important to the health and welfare of the region, and it is important for the public and public officials to be informed about the threats to the Catawba River.  Most people would not consider allowing continued discharges from unlined coal ash ponds along the banks of the primary drinking water reservoirs in the region to be “real action to protect our water supply for this and future generations.” 

Duke Energy Statement:

We consistently find that water quality along the Catawba River is good, fish are healthy, and drinking water supplies are safe.

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

If Duke Energy’s data shows that water quality along the Catawba River is good and fish are healthy, their data is inconsistent with data from other sources.  Public officials have issued fish advisories for every reservoir along the Catawba on which a Duke Energy coal ash pond is located because of unsafe levels of mercury and PCBs.  Mecklenburg County periodically finds elevated levels of arsenic in Mountain Island Lake downstream of the Duke Energy coal ash ponds.  (Mountain Island Lake is the primary drinking water source for approximately 860,000 people in Charlotte, Gastonia, Mt. Holly, Pineville, Matthews, Mint Hill, and other areas.)  Dr. Avner Vengosh and his research team from Duke University detected elevated levels of arsenic building up in the sediment of Mountain Island Lake downstream of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.  Elevated levels of arsenic have also been detected in the sediment removed at drinking water treatment facilities that are downstream from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Duke Energy Statement:

Ash basin seepage is normal and necessary for an earthen dam’s structural integrity. Duke engineers have reviewed seepage and continue to find nothing of concern to dam safety or water quality. The volume of seepage is extremely small and has no impact to the overall water quality in the lake.

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

The volume of seepage from Duke’s coal ash ponds is not insignificant.  The volume of seepage flowing through the dikes is so great that Duke has gone to the trouble of constructing four French drain systems to control the erosion of the dikes from the seepage and divert the seepage flows into the River.  At the Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake, Catawba Riverkeeper Director of Technical Programs Sam Perkins estimates that these four seepage collection systems collectively have a flow in excess of 400,000 gallons per day.  This is not an insignificant flow.  In addition, at Riverbend there are an additional 15+ seepage points and fields that have uncontrolled flows of seepage from the ash ponds. All of these seepage flows are unpermitted, and thus, Duke Energy does not adhere to any pollutant limits or flow limits, which would normally be imposed in a wastewater permit.

 As noted above, testing by other entities, including a peer-reviewed study by Dr. Avner Vengosh at Duke University, shows that these discharges are having an impact on water quality in the lakes downstream of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Furthermore, seepage of carcinogenic pollutants from the ash ponds is not necessary.  Industry best practices for handling coal ash include dry handling of coal ash and storage of ash in lined waste facilities with treatment of any leachate from the waste facility.  The ash handling system at Riverbend is a wet ash system that increases the likelihood of contamination, and the waste ponds are not lined to prevent seepage.  At Riverbend and Duke’s other waste ash ponds, there is no treatment of the seepage from the ash ponds before it enters the reservoirs.

Duke Energy Statement:

Duke Energy’s ash dams are safe, and we have a robust safety program that includes routine inspections and preventative maintenance.

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

Because Duke has redacted large parts of the reports relating to the safety of the coal ash ponds (including 78 out of 90 figures and photos in a 2009 EPA report), it is difficult for outside parties to evaluate the structural safety of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.  However, it should be noted that other coal ash ponds that have failed received satisfactory ratings before they failed.  Furthermore, a consultant (Lockheed Martin) reviewing the safety of Duke’s coal ash ponds was not provided by Duke with critical information that was needed to confirm how the ash ponds were constructed and whether they met minimum safety standards. This same consultant recommended in September 2009 that Duke perform a breach analysis, rapid draw down analysis, and stability analysis for the ash ponds, which does not appear to have been done. 

Duke Energy Statement:

Trace metals in Catawba River reservoirs are at the lowest amounts laboratory instruments can accurately measure just a short distance from our facilities.

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

As noted above, Catawba Riverkeeper, Duke University, and Mecklenburg County have all detected levels of arsenic and other metals in Mountain Island lake sediment and water at levels significantly above both detection limits.  Levels of metals in the shallow groundwater in MW-13, which is located on the edge of Mountain Island Lake, have been detected at levels as high as 20,600 ug/l for iron and 11,200 ug/l for manganese, which are orders of magnitude above the detection limits (1084 and 7467 times, respectively, above the minimum detection limits for the instrument used by a state-certified lab to detect these).

Duke Energy Statement:

Riverbend Steam Station retired April 1. We plan to close its ash basins once they are no longer needed, in close coordination with state regulators. We are evaluating multiple closure options to ensure we select methods that provide high long-term water quality protection first and foremost.

Catawba Riverkeeper Response:

Duke Energy’s NPDES permit for the Riverbend Steam Station requires that Duke submit a closure plan for the ash ponds one year prior to the closure of the facility.  To the best of our knowledge, Duke has not submitted a closure plan to date although the facility closed on April 1, 2013.  It is our understanding that Duke plans to leave the unlined waste ponds in place on the edge of Mountain Island Lake.  Although we understand that Duke is considering placing a cap over the existing waste ponds, a cap would not prevent continued seepage of pollutants into the groundwater and lake.  It is important that the public have an opportunity to provide input on the permanent closure plans for the ash ponds.


TAKE ACTION TODAY!

Lend your voice to the effort to protect the Catawba River! Tell the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to require full cleanup of these coal ash ponds!