In response to a Notice of Intent to Sue filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the State of North Carolina has filed suit against Duke Energy for its coal ash pollution of Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte. Mountain Island Lake is the source of drinking water for over 750,000 people in the greater Charlotte area. Duke Energy has allowed toxic metals and other harmful substances from coal ash in unlined lagoons to pollute Mountain Island Lake, the Catawba River, and groundwater at its Riverbend facility for years, in violation of its water pollution elimination permit.
"Despite Duke Energy's past claims that leaks of contaminated water are a sign of a healthy dam, there's nothing healthy - or legal - about discharging unregulated amounts of toxic and harmful pollutants into the drinking water supply for almost a million people around Charlotte," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It is dangerous and irresponsible to store toxic coal ash in leaking lagoons on the banks of Mountain Island Lake."
North Carolina's suit is filed under oath and states that Duke Energy's "unpermitted seeps" at Mountain Island Lake violate North Carolina law and that Duke Energy's pollution at Mountain Island Lake "poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state."
In March, the Southern Environmental Law Center gave a 60-day notice to Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources that it intended to file suit against Duke Energy for its coal ash and arsenic water pollution at the Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County.
Only a leaking 80-foot tall earthen berm on a peninsula into the lake separates millions of tons of coal ash in unlined lagoons from the drinking water reservoir. The berm is leaking numerous streams of contaminated water into the lake. In fact, Duke Energy even constructed channels to illegally assist some contaminated flows into the drinking water reservoir.
"Duke CEO Jim Rogers publicly acknowledged the coal ash contamination at Riverbend and has promised that Duke Energy 'will ultimately end up cleaning up all that,'" said Richard Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba River Foundation. "The question is why Duke Energy isn't willing to clean up its pollution and move its toxic coal ash to a lined, dry storage now, before even more contamination pollutes the water and sediments of Mountain Island Lake."
Monitoring data show Riverbend's unlined lagoons have contaminated the groundwater at the site and flowing into Mountain Island Lake for years. The pollution includes arsenic, cobalt, boron, barium, strontium, manganese, zinc, and iron. Testing by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation indicates that Duke Energy is discharging arsenic into Mountain Island Lake in concentrations at least twice the applicable standard, cobalt at 52 times the standard, manganese at 128 times the standard, and iron at 27 times the standard.
The substances discharged by Duke Energy into Mountain Island Lake are known harmful pollutants. Arsenic is a known carcinogen that causes multiple forms of cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that cobalt is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Manganese is known to be toxic to the nervous system and concentrations greater than 50 ug/L render water unusable by discoloring the water, giving it a metallic taste, and causing black staining. Iron can render water unusable by imparting a rusty color and a metallic taste and causing sedimentation and staining. Oral exposure to boron has led to developmental and reproductive toxicity in multiple species. Barium can cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscular weakness. Concurrent exposure to multiple contaminants may intensify existing effects of individual contaminants, or give rise to interactions and synergies that create new effects.
A similar lawsuit by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and SELC against South Carolina utility SCE&G was settled last year when the utility agreed to move all 2.4 million tons of coal ash from its unlined Wateree Station lagoons to a lined landfill.
Frank Holleman stated: "We will be reviewing the State's suit and determining the next steps to be taken by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Catawba Riverkeeper to protect Charlotte and its drinking water from Duke Energy's illegal pollution."
The state originally filed suit against the utility on March 22, 2013, for pollution from the coal ash lagoons at its Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant. The state's lawsuit followed a Notice of Intent to sue for violations of the Clean Water Act sent by SELC on behalf of the Sierra Club, Western North Carolina Alliance, and Waterkeeper Alliance. The State's claims regarding Mountain Island Lake have been added to the suit dealing with the Asheville Plant.