Environmentalists raise objections to Duke pumping at Moncure coal ash pond

Duke Energy officials say the pumping activity captured by Waterkeeper Alliance was due to maintenance work and allowed under their state permits. State officials say they are reviewing the incident.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Advocates with the Waterkeeper Alliance say pictures they released Monday of workers for Duke Energy pumping water from a coal ash pond into a stream that feeds the Cape Fear River shows the company violating state and federal clean water rules. 

Duke officials don't dispute they were pumping the water, but they say they were allowed to do so for maintenance work under current permits for the pond, which is at a retired power plant in Moncure.

"To label the secret, unmitigated, intentional discharge of untold amounts of highly toxic wastewater as 'routine maintenance' seems ludicrous," said Peter Harrison of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Coal ash has been a subject in much in the news since Feb. 2. That's when a pipe running underneath a Duke coal ash pond near Eden ruptured, dumping up to 39,000 of ash into the Dan River.

Coal ash is material left over after coal is burned for fuel and contains toxins like selenium, mercury and arsenic.

Although the spill was a dramatic event, environmental groups, the state and Duke have been at odds for years over seepage from the coal ash storage ponds into local groundwater supplies, rivers and reservoirs. 

Since then, state regulators have been under fire for what environmental groups says is lax oversight of the utility giant. 

"Our inspectors noticed this pumping during an on-site inspection March 11, and we are investigating the utility’s actions. While routine maintenance is allowed under the permit, discharge of untreated wastewater could be a violation," said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

David Scanzoni, a spokesman for Duke, said the company was using a "temporary pumping system to lower water levels in two basins at the Cape Fear Plant to perform upcoming maintenance." Scanzoni said this is ongoing work that began in the fall after the company notified DENR in August. 

"We had identified, through routine inspections, that maintenance was needed on the 'risers' – the vertical pipes that transfer basin water to the discharge system," Scanzoni said by email. "Our permit authorizes this type of maintenance specifically under the condition that we meet permit limits. The water was being pumped to the existing, permitted outfalls. Discharges from those permitted outfalls are monitored, and continued to be, throughout this process."

However, officials with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of activists who work to protect rivers and other waterways from pollution, say they don't believe the discharge was legal. 

"This was either illegal, unilateral action by Duke – or a quiet backroom deal with DENR. There is no evidence that any valid, publicly available permit allows them to discharge untold gallons of untreated concentrated coal ash wastewater," said Donna Lisenby, the Waterkeeper Alliance's Global Coal Campaign Coordinator.


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