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Groups in Court to Stop Groundwater Contamination from Toxic Coal Ash Waste

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Groups in Court to Stop Groundwater Contamination from Toxic Coal Ash Waste

By Southern Environmental Law Center

Conservation groups today went to court in an effort to protect North Carolina communities and groundwater from toxic coal ash contamination at 14 coal-fired power plants across the state. The lawsuit seeks to vindicate a North Carolina law—currently unenforced by the state—that requires industrial polluters to stop groundwater contamination and cleanup at these outdated coal ash ponds.

“Twenty years ago, North Carolina required utilities to take immediate action to stop groundwater contamination from these outdated facilities," said DJ Gerken, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the groups in today's filing. “Thanks to the state's misapplication of its own laws, we're still waiting for these polluters to stop and clean up known contamination of groundwater from their old industrial operations."

If successful, the lawsuit would require cleanup of groundwater contamination around outdated, unlined coal ash ponds. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the complaint in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of the Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

Today's lawsuit challenges a December vote by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission to allow Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas continued and widespread contamination of groundwater with dangerous substances, including arsenic and thallium, without taking action to stop the contamination.

Groundwater monitoring by Progress Energy Carolinas documents persistent contamination in excess of groundwater standards at its Asheville and L. V. Sutton facilities' coal ash ponds, located near the French Broad and Cape Fear rivers upstream from Asheville and Wilmington. Several years of sampling also confirms contamination at 12 other coal-fired plants operated by Progress and Duke across the state. Despite the acknowledged contamination, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not required the utilities to clean up these sites.

“The fight against toxic coal ash is gaining momentum here in North Carolina and nationwide. This is another step toward our goal of protecting North Carolina families from coal ash contamination," said Kelly Martin, Beyond Coal campaign representative with Sierra Club. “Our health and our water resources are too important to gamble with. The state of North Carolina and Duke Energy need to take action to clean up this toxic contamination now."

Among the coal waste contaminants that exceeded state standards in groundwater at the Asheville plant near the French Broad River and L.V. Sutton plant near the Cape Fear River are thallium and selenium. Thallium is a poison and suspected to cause cancer in people. Additionally, thallium is highly water-soluble and nearly tasteless, making it difficult to detect in groundwater and hard for residents to identify its presence and protect themselves. In high amounts, selenium causes illness and neurological damage in people, even death in extreme cases.

“The practice of dumping toxic coal ash into unlined holes in the ground that pollute our groundwater and rivers needs to stop," said French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “The French Broad River is a world class recreation destination, and we no longer want to see it used as a dumping ground for toxic coal ash."

Arsenic levels exceeded state groundwater standards at the Sutton plant on the Cape Fear River. Epidemiological studies have suggested a correlation between chronic consumption of water contaminated with arsenic and the incidence of cancer and many leading causes of death.

“Groundwater monitoring at the Sutton coal ash ponds show arsenic levels 27 times higher than safe groundwater standards, just half a mile from drinking water wells," said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “The risks to public health and the environment will remain until the ponds are cleaned up—we can't wait any longer."

"The N.C. Environmental Management Commission ignored the law and voted to allow Duke and Progress to continue contaminating groundwater with known dangerous chemicals like arsenic and thallium," said Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance. "We appealed that unfortunate decision and took our case to a judge today because we believe it's critical to keep fighting for the health of our communities and waterways."

Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas confirmed contamination from older coal ash waste ponds at 14 of their facilities across the state, including:

• L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington, N.C. near Lake Sutton and the Cape Fear River
• Asheville Power Station in Arden, N.C. near the French Broad River and Lake Julian
• Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. near the Catawba River and Lake Wylie
• Belews Creek Steam Station in Belews Creek, N.C. near the Dan River and Belews Lake
• Buck Steam Station in Spencer, N.C. near the Yadkin River
• Cliffside Steam Station in Mooresboro, N.C. near the Broad River
• Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. near the Dan River
• Marshall Steam Station in Terrell, N.C. near the Catawba River and Lake Norman
• Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C. near the Catawba River and Mountain Island Lake
• Cape Fear Power Station in Moncure, N.C. near the Cape Fear River
• Lee Power Station in Goldsboro, N.C. near the Neuse River
• Mayo Power Station in Roxboro, N.C. near Mayo Creek, Mayo Reservoir, Crutchfield Creek, and Roanoke Basin
• Roxboro Power Station in Semora, N.C. near the Hyco River, Hyco Lake, and Sargent's Creek
• W.H. Weatherspoon Power Station in Lumberton, N.C. near Jacob Swamp and Lumber River

Coal ash waste ponds came to national attention on Dec. 22, 2008 when a dam burst at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant and spilled coal ash waste slurry through nearby homes and into the Emory River in Tennessee. Today, toxic coal ash waste still remains less regulated than household waste.

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