By Craig Jarvis, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke Energy’s pumping of two coal-ash ponds for maintenance work at its Chatham County plant — discovered last week by environmentalists and regulators — illegally put 61 million gallons of wastewater into the Cape Fear River over the past several months.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Thursday notified the utility the pumping violated its wastewater permit, which subjects it to fines of up to $25,000 a day.
More bad news came from the closed Cape Fear Steam Station before the day was over: Late in the afternoon, Duke Energy reported finding a crack in the earthen dam on one of the site’s coal ash lagoons. State dam safety inspectors headed to the plant Thursday evening, but said initial reports indicated it wasn’t in imminent danger of failing.
Meanwhile, a Wake County Superior Court judge denied Duke Energy’s request to postpone a ruling that would require the utility to immediately get rid of the toxins leaking from its coal ash plants in North Carolina.
DENR says it has notified downstream cities of the illegal discharge from the pumping into the Cape Fear River, but so far has not heard of any problems with water quality. The river provides drinking water for Sanford, Dunn, Fayetteville and other communities.
The 61 million gallons, pumped into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, is more than twice the size of the Feb. 2 Dan River spill, but it happened over several months instead of days, and it didn’t include the 39,000 tons of coal-ash sludge that accompanied the disaster in Rockingham County.
The Cape Fear plant in Moncure, which is the coal-ash facility closest to the Triangle, operated for 89 years until it was closed in 2012. It has five lagoons where it stores the ash, which is a byproduct of coal burned for electricity, mixed with water.
On March 10, the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance flew a plane over the site and spotted two pumps at two of the ponds. The next day four inspectors from the state Division of Water Resources visited the plant as part of a week set aside to conduct in-depth inspections of all the state’s coal ash sites, and found the pumps inactive.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy told The News & Observer on Monday that the company informed DENR in August that it would begin lowering water levels for maintenance that began last fall. On Thursday, DENR said a company official had called in August to inform it of the routine work.
But the pumping “far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance,” Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, said in a statement announcing the violation.
The company had lowered the water level to work on risers, which are vertical spillway pipes. But workers bypassed the risers and diverted the wastewater into a canal, accelerating the draw-down of the water. That prevented the water from being treated as it came out too fast for the heavier ash to settle at the bottom of the pond.