Waterkeepers Take Legal Action to Stop Toxic Coal Ash from Contaminating Groundwater


Waterkeeper Alliance

Waterkeepers Kemp Burdette and Donna Lisenby test water on the Cape Fear River below the Sutton coal fired power plant in Wilmington, NC. Photo credit: Dot Griffith

Conservation groups today asked the N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to require Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas to clean up groundwater contaminated by old, unlined coal ash lagoons at 14 coal-fired power plants that have been leaking toxic substances for decades. Coal ash is the toxic waste that remains after coal is burned. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the complaint with the EMC on behalf of the Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance.

“It’s irresponsible to North Carolina’s families that utilities know coal ash slurry is seeping poisons into groundwater and rivers without cleaning it up,” said DJ Gerken, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the groups in today’s filing.

Self-monitoring by Progress Energy Carolinas confirms that contamination around its coal ash waste ponds at its Asheville and L. V. Sutton facilities exceeded state standards for groundwater quality. Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas’ own reporting also confirms contamination at 12 other facilities across the state. Despite the acknowledged contamination, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not required the utilities to cleanup these sites. Today’s filing asks the state to take decisive action to protect North Carolina’s residents.

“Burning coal leaves behind toxic pollutants in coal ash which have the potential to damage every major organ in our bodies. In Asheville and around the state, residents deserve protection from leaking coal ash lagoons,” said Kelly Martin, Beyond Coal campaign representative with the Sierra Club. “It’s time for Duke and Progress to clean up its waste.” 

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 celebration of the French Broad River as a world-class recreation destination is well deserved,” said French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “Progress Energy needs to hear from all of us that our community embraces a future for the French Broad River as a world-class recreation destination—and that we no longer want to see it used as a dumping ground for toxic coal ash.”

“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 at the Cape Fear River Watch. “The risk to human health is too great to ignore any longer.”

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.

"Years ago, I found 681 exceedances of the North Carolina groundwater standard for arsenic, boron, cadmium, chloride, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, pH, sulfate and total dissolved solids at ash ponds across NC," said Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance. "Levels of these pollutants were up to 380 times higher than the North Carolina groundwater standard, yet Duke and Progress completely failed to take any meaningful steps to clean up their toxic water pollution. Today, we acted to safeguard the health of our communities and waterways by demanding that the state of NC force these irresponsible utilities to clean up the poisons they put in our groundwater.”

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


About Southern Environmental Law Center - The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of more than 50 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.

About Sierra Club - The Sierra Club is America's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 1.4 million members and supporters nationwide. The Sierra Club works to to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying and litigation.

About Waterkeeper Alliance - Waterkeeper Alliance unites more than 200 Waterkeeper organizations that are on the front lines of the global water crisis patrolling and protecting more than 1.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. Waterkeepers emphasize citizen advocacy to defend the fundamental human right to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable waters, and combine firsthand knowledge of their waterways with an unwavering commitment to the rights of their communities and to the rule of law.

About Western North Carolina Alliance - For 30 years, the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA) has been a trusted community partner, marshaling grassroots support to keep our forests healthy, our air and water clean, and our communities vibrant. WNCA empowers citizens to be advocates for livable communities and the natural environment of Western North Carolina.

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