Duke Energy Blamed for Arsenic Pollution in Second North Carolina River

(Bloomberg) -- Environmental groups are linking a second Duke Energy Corp. coal-ash site to arsenic pollution in North Carolina rivers after the facilities were flooded by Hurricane Florence.

A water sample from the Cape Fear River near Duke’s Sutton power plant in Wilmington contained 710 micrograms of arsenic per liter, Waterkeeper Alliance said in a statement Wednesday. The state standard for drinking water supply and fish consumption is 10 micrograms.

Duke acknowledged that material from the Sutton dump entered the river after Florence made landfall Sept. 14, but said Sept. 23 that initial tests showed the discharges “are not harming water quality.” Duke has already clashed with environmental groups over another spill, at the H.F. Lee power plant in Goldsboro, where the company and state regulators refuted claims that coal ash polluted the Neuse River.

“In spite of what is painfully obvious from these test results and from photos of huge plumes of coal ash swirling down the river, it looks like neither Duke nor state regulators have even admitted that there was a release in the first place,” Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Earthjustice, said in the statement.

Duke Energy Blamed for Arsenic Pollution in Second North Carolina River

Environmental groups may be misrepresenting the tests to “mislead the public,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in an email.

“Duke Energy has been sampling river quality in the Cape Fear River for several days following historic flooding from Hurricane Florence,” Sheehan said. “Dozens of lab samples have been collected by an independent third party and analyzed in our state-certified lab and demonstrate that water quality remains good.”

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper group said last week that tests found arsenic levels nearly 18 times above drinking water standards in the Neuse River. Tests at both sites were conducted by Pace Analytical, a lab based in Asheville. Late Monday, state regulators contradicted that claim and said water tests near the H.F. Lee site didn’t exceed limits for metals associated with the coal byproduct.

The “findings validate our testing approach and results, and more importantly demonstrate that flooding at the H.F. Lee plant has not affected water quality,” Duke spokesman Bill Norton said in an email Tuesday.

Mercury, Lead, Selenium

Coal ash, a byproduct from burning the fuel in power plants, can carry arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium, though its overall toxicity has long been debated. Testing at the Sutton plant also revealed selenium levels of 22 micrograms per liter, 4.4 times above the standard of 5 micrograms.

The cooling pond at the Sutton plant, which has been converted from burning coal to natural gas, has become a popular fishing lake that hosts regular tournaments for anglers. The landfill was constructed after Charlotte-based Duke, the biggest utility in the Carolinas, was required to close unlined coal-ash ponds at several sites and construct lined landfills to hold the material.

The company has an August 2019 deadline to complete the Sutton landfill and cap it with plastic and soil to prevent future spills.

“One thing this tells me is any water left in Lake Sutton must be insanely toxic, but Duke isn’t even monitoring the water in the lake,” Harrison said.

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