America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2013: Catawba River

North Carolina, South Carolina

At Risk: Coal ash pollution
Threat: Drinking water and recreational enjoyment

Millions of people in the Southeast depend on the Catawba River for drinking water and recreation. However, storage ponds for coal ash, a byproduct of power generation, are threatening the river and local water supply with pollution.

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources must require Duke Energy’s Riverbend power plant to ensure the coal ash ponds are sufficiently maintained in perpetuity to safeguard the river and water supply for future generations.

The Threat

Coal ash is formed at coal-fired power plants when coal is burned in boilers that generate steam for power generation. In the Catawba watershed, coal ash and scrubber residue has been dumped into 551 acres of ponds—  all lacking liners to prevent groundwater contamination. These ponds are permitted to discharge— even into drinking water reservoirs— arsenic, selenium, and other carcinogens at concentrations that far exceed the EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water. Decades of unlimited coal ash pond discharges have caused extreme soil and water contamination in Catawba drinking water reservoirs.

The impact of the discharge of these contaminants will multiply as more water is withdrawn from the river and flows decrease over time, with increasing demand and more frequent drought. Potential new reservoirs and water transfers within the Catawba system will only exacerbate the problem caused by this coal ash pollution.

Catawba River, NC | © BBSC30

Four coal ash ponds that sit almost 80 feet above the banks of the Catawba River are listed on the EPA list of 44 High Hazard Coal Ash Impoundments. These aging ponds pose a catastrophic security threat as drinking water reservoirs and billions of dollars of property could be destroyed should one of the coal ash pond dams fail, as happened in 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant.  The clean-up for the Kingston coal ash spill has already cost more than $1.5 billion— and that bill will continue to climb for years to come, with some damage that no amount of money can fix. The Kingston facility was newer than Riverbend, and impacted an area much more rural and less of a critical drinking water source than Mountain Island Lake. For a massive spill to happen amidst the most populated area in North Carolina would be absolutely catastrophic.

At Riverbend Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant that sits on the drinking water source for 860,000 people, problems have appeared at the dam holding back the coal ash pond. Seeps are now coming out of the dam on all sides and into the reservoir. These discharges are neither monitored nor permitted. Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have known about the seeps and have even channelized them into French drains— sending the polluted water through the soil into the surrounding land (for which there are no plans to remediate). This is a major issue given that there are hundreds of acres of coal ash ponds within a 28-mile span above and below this site — all of which could end up leaking in the future.

What Must Be Done

The Riverbend Steam Station, one of Duke Energy’s oldest coal-fired power plants, is scheduled to close in April 2013. However, no plans or precedent exist to clean up the 3.2 million cubic yards of toxic waste from its 71 acres of coal ash ponds. These dams have questionable long-term stability. Without cleanup, those ponds will gradually seep into and contaminate Mountain Island Lake, a drinking water reservoir for 860,000 people. Plus, the possibility of dam failure will forever pose a catastrophic threat to the community. The stakes are high to ensure that a good precedent is set for the nation’s largest utility. DENR must require Duke Energy to remove contaminated material from the site and dispose of it at a lined, monitored storage site.