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Friday June 2nd

Hurricane Florence adds coal ash spills to pollution cases facing Duke Energy

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Another coal ash spill has been reported at Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant in Wilmington, N.C., while a preexisting and ongoing pollution lawsuit against Duke Energy moves forward. 

Hurricane Florence induced flooding that led to increased risk of coal ash spills at energy plants. But even before Florence struck, Duke Energy was already involved with a pollution report filed in December 2017 in Stokes County. 

The complaint alleges clean water violations at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. It was brought forward on behalf of several concerned community groups, including the Stokes County NAACP, North Carolina NAACP and Appalachian Voices. 

The Belews Creek suit is one of several federal lawsuits filed against Duke Energy by the Southern Environmental Law Center. A recent decision by a federal judge in North Carolina said this case will proceed. 

Myra Blake, staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Duke Energy has failed to prevent pollutants from entering the environment surrounding its Belews Creek site. 

“They’re supposed to treat the wastewater and discharge clean wastewater through a designated outfall,” she said. “But instead they have a wastewater treatment pond that leaks in many different locations into the groundwater and the surface water.”

Blake said Duke Energy has been polluting these waters for decades in violation of its North Carolina state permit and the Clean Water Act. 

“The lawsuit seeks to force Duke Energy to stop contaminating the community’s water and, in particular, stop violating the portion of their permit that requires Duke Energy to not release these pollutants into the environment,” she said. 

Blake said the case will proceed, and while there is no exact timeline yet, she anticipates it will continue into next year. 

“The community is seeking to hold Duke Energy accountable and get them to stop contaminating their groundwater, lakes and rivers,” Blake said. “The lawsuit seeks to get Duke Energy to comply with the Clean Water Act and its permit by removing the source of the contamination and eliminating this threat to the community.”

Paige Sheehan, a Duke Energy spokesperson, said these lawsuits are an unnecessary extra step due to North Carolina’s rigorous coal ash management policies. 

“It’s called the Coal Ash Management Act,” Sheehan said. “CAMA outlines a very detailed process that the company is in the middle of to safely close coal ash basins and to do it in a way that’s based on science and engineering.”

Sheehan said coal ash cleanup varies across the state, and every basin should be evaluated differently. 

“In some cases, coal ash basins are being excavated, which means the materials are dug out and moved to a new location where they are stored,” she said. “That’s like what we’re doing at Sutton because it makes sense to do it at Sutton.” 

The Sutton site, located in Wilmington, recently released coal ash that eventually reached the Cape Fear River due to flooding from Hurricane Florence. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has not yet released any of its own tests, but Duke Energy’s initial data showed no harm to the river. 

“In other cases, like Belews Creek, we’re proposing that you remove the water from the ash basin and safely cap the material there without moving it,” she said. 

Sheehan said both CAMA and the CCR Rule, a federal regulation, directs utility companies to use science and engineering to reach a customized decision for every plant’s situation. 

“These lawsuits, including the lawsuit at Belews Creek, are designed to advance an extreme agenda that will burden North Carolina with the most disruptive, unnecessary and costly basin closure method,” she said. “We prefer a customized solution where you look at every basin and make the best decision that does the most good for customers and communities.

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