Riverkeeper issues challenge to Duke Energy

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David Merryman today at Mountain Island Lake
  • David Merryman today at Mountain Island Lake

Our Catawba Riverkeeper, David Merryman, challenged Duke Energy at a press conference on the edge of Mountain Island Lake today. He is demanding that the company close an 80-year-old coal plant within six months and clean up the plant's two unlined high-hazard coal ash ponds that drain into the lake, which is part of the Catawba River.

Andy Thompson, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says that's not going to happen; however, he also says the company has tentative plans to close the plant by 2017.

Merryman's challenge came in response to the results of sampling tests his organization conducted this spring. Those results indicate there are elevated levels of arsenic and barium near where the company discharges water from the coal ash ponds into the lake — Charlotte's main drinking water reservoir. The tests also indicate the presence of barium, selenium and mercury in a composite sample of large mouth bass.

Read Merryman's press release and review his findings.

Charlotte Mecklenburg's Water Quality Program Manager, Rusty Rozzelle, says the Riverkeeper's numbers line up with the results from testing samples taken by his department as recently as last month. As with Merryman's results, samples taken further away from the coal ash pond discharge indicate lower levels of the substances.

The coal plant is outside of Mecklenburg County's jurisdiction. But, since Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities draws 80 percent of the area's drinking water from the reservoir, the county has stepped up its monitoring of some, but not all, of the substances listed in Merryman's test results.

Notably, the county doesn't sample fish. The last time the state tested Mountain Island Lake's fish was in 2001. At that time, both mercury and PCBs were found in every fish pulled from the lake.

Nine-year-old test results aren't good enough, says Merryman, adding "the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources must get out here and sample our fish immediately and tell us whether they're safe to eat."

Merryman also wants to know why the state's discharge permit for the plant, which is up for renewal this year, doesn't limit the amount of arsenic the company is allowed to release into Mountain Island Lake.

Rozzelle would also like to see the state cap the amount of arsenic Duke Energy can discharge from the coal ash ponds into the reservoir. He says the county suggested the state add that restriction when it commented on the renewal of the plant's discharge permit.

Meanwhile, Thompson says the plant, Riverbend Steam Station, "has been a great neighbor for the Carolinas." Because of it and the energy it creates, he says, Charlotte and the surrounding areas have grown and prospered.

"We don't have any plans to change how Riverbend is operated," Thompson says, adding that Duke Energy frequently monitors the health of both the lake and its fish and that the plant doesn't have a significant impact. "Our data shows that the water quality in Mountain Island  Lake is excellent and that the fish habitat is good," he says.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities recently released a federally mandated water quality report, which you should have received in the mail. (If you didn't, you can review it here.) According to that report, our drinking water is fine and the levels of any substance found in the water are well within federal guidelines.

Merryman doesn't claim that Duke Energy is breaking any laws, nor does he claim our drinking water is in violation of federal standards. What he is calling for are tighter regulations from both the state and federal government. He also wants to remind people that Charlotte Mecklenburg Utility's customers are the ones who pay to have our drinking water cleaned when it's dirty.

"If we can protect our water on the front end, why should we pay ten times more on the back end?" Merryman asked at the press conference.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities does treat the water for arsenic. Vick Simpson, a spokesman for the department, responded to Merryman's comment by saying, "Sure. It's logical. The cleaner your source water is, the less expensive it will be to treat it for drinking water safety."

However, the utility will not detail their plan of action should Mountain Island Lake become compromised. Simpson says doing so would compromise the plan.

Merryman has declared coal ash "enemy No. 1" on the Catawba River, which was declared one of the 10 most endangered rivers in America, by the advocacy group American Rivers, in 2008 and, this year, one of the top 10 most endangered places in the Southeast, by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Merryman says the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation will conduct the same types of testing at the four other coal ash ponds along the river if their funding comes through. The tests that were conducted on Mountain Island Lake were funded by grants made by two organizations, Patagonia and the Turner Foundation.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has struggled in its efforts to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous waste. Doing so would place the substance under the supervision of the federal government. The agency has released two proposed rules for coal ash. One lists coal ash as a "special," or hazardous, waste and the other puts it in the same category as household garbage.

Read the EPA's proposed regulations.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation encouraged citizens to write letters to the state requesting a public hearing on coal ash. So far, it is unclear if that request will be granted.

The North Carolina Department of Natural Resources has yet to respond to our request for comment on this story.

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