Citizen Green: First the Dan, now Cape Fear

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by Jordan Green

Jordan Green
Jordan Green

Duke Energy’s reputation, already in tatters, has taken another hit with the recent revelations about its intentional discharge of 61 million gallons of wastewater from two coal-ash ponds at its decommissioned Cape Fear Steam Electric Power Plant into a tributary of the Cape Fear River in Chatham County.

Yes, intentional. The utility is in trouble because of an accidental discharge due to a drainpipe blowout at another retired plant in Eden that in early February dumped coal ash into the Dan River. Meanwhile, Duke has been continuously pumping wastewater from a coal-ash pond at the Cape Fear facility over the span of six months, going back to September and into March. And the 61 million gallons pumped into the Cape Fear River is twice the volume that was accidentally dumped into the Dan River, although presumably with a lower concentration of coal ash.

Duke’s apparent contempt for the law puts the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources — previously tasked by former Duke employee and now-Gov. Pat McCrory with improving its customer service towards the industries it regulates — in an awkward position. The state agency announced last week that it was pulling out a proposed settlement in which Duke would pay a piddling $99,000 fine without having to transfer coal ash from open ponds to secured, lined landfills.

Duke’s explanation is that it was pumping out of the two ponds, built in 1978 and 1985, for the purpose of lowering the water level to perform maintenance work on vertical pipes known as “risers.” The utility has declined to comment beyond a circumspect, opaque news release issued last week.

Considering that that the coal ash generally sinks to the bottom of the ponds, state regulation allows for skimming some water off the top under limited and controlled circumstances. But Jamie Kritzer, a DENR spokesman, told me that the agency’s investigation found that Duke was “accelerating the drawdown to those ponds to such a degree that it was causing the ash ponds to no longer serve as a wastewater treatment system” and taking water from lower in the pond where the ash was more concentrated.

DENR slapped Duke with an official notice of violation on March 20, finding that the discharge “does not constitute essential maintenance.”

Duke’s statement on the matter in its news release last week basically amounts to: No big deal.

“The water was being pumped to the existing, permitted outfalls and was being monitored according to the plant permit,” the news release states, adding that Duke notified DENR prior to pumping.

Kritzer said Duke notified an inspector at a regional office on Aug. 13 that the utility would be performing some routine maintenance, but that the inspector did not realize the magnitude of pumping that was planned.

Kritzer said Duke’s permit requires water sampling at the immediate point of discharge. Contrary to Duke’s assurance that the discharge was monitored, Kritzer said, “We did not see any sampling data in their files when we were conducting our investigation, and we have requested that they provide us with that.”

Later in the same day that Duke was cited for a violation at the Cape Fear plant, the utility notified DENR about a crack in the earthen embankment of the coal-ash pond. Utility employees had observed “a small depression” two weeks earlier, which expanded into a crack about three to four inches wide and 35 feet long.

One wonders whether the utility knew that its coal-ash ponds across the state — 33 in total — were at risk of failure, and decided to gradually reduce the water level at the Cape Fear and other plants to reduce pressure and prevent a sudden catastrophe as occurred at Dan River.

In a cruel irony, Kritzer suggested to me that the crack was caused precisely because of Duke’s pumping activity.

“By lowering the reservoir level at a more accelerated pace it can cause cracks to form in earthen structures,” Kritzer said. “When you lower a reservoir too quickly or there is continuous fluctuation, it can lead to upstream slope failures.”

Maybe Duke is telling a partial truth about routine maintenance being the reason for its pumping, said Frank Holleman, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“My sense of the issue is it’s one of two things. Either it’s what they said — routine maintenance and a system so primitive and poorly designed that they have to pump 61 million gallons of water out to do the work. Those dams are the worst dams in the state of North Carolina, and they’re rated poor. The other possibility is that they looked at them and wanted to reduce the pressure on the dam. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. They needed to fix the vertical pipe so they could lower the water level.”

This second catastrophe should only cause Duke to hasten its plans to transfer the coal ash into dry storage, Holleman added.

“This situation illustrates the insanity of storing the ash in unlined pits next to waterways because it sets Duke up and sets the communities and rivers up for catastrophe,” he said. “If they were in safe, dry landfills, issues like this would never arise. When you store it in this way any issue that arises can cause a catastrophe.

“It’s a bad system where you have to maintain pressure on a dam to keep it from cracking,” he added.