The Duke Energy coal ash facility fallout continues—this time at a Chatham County plant located about 25 miles south of Chapel Hill. State environmental regulators are now investigating whether the utility has been pumping contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear River.
Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said that state inspectors observed on March 11 that Duke Energy workers had possibly pumped water from two coal ash ponds located at the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure, which was closed in 2012.
The pumps were attached to hoses that carried water from the coal ash ponds into an internal canal.
The canal is supposed to discharge only treated wastewater from the coal ash ponds.
The concern is whether contaminated water was also released into the canal, which flows into an unnamed tributary that feeds the Cape Fear River, a drinking water source for several cities. Coal ash contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.
“The utility told us that they were conducting routine maintenance,” Kritzer said. “Certainly some routine maintenance is allowed under their wastewater discharge permit, but discharge of untreated wastewater could be a violation of that permit. That is what we are looking into right now.”
Kritzer said DENR discovered the potentially illegal pumping during a planned investigation of the plant.
This was part of a state-wide effort by DENR to conduct detailed inspections of all 14 Duke Energy facilities with coal ash impoundments.
The investigation was precipitated by the February coal ash spill at a Duke Energy plant in Eden during which at least 30,000 tons of pollutant were released into the Dan River.
Kritzer said DENR officials are expected to make a decision later this week about whether Duke Energy violated the discharge permit at the Cape Fear Plant.
“There is the potential we could issue notices of violation. Those could carry with them fines and penalties that could be fairly stiff,” Kritzer said.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, flew a plane over Duke Energy’s Cape Fear River plant on March 10 and photographed the two pumps drawing water from the two coal ash ponds. Those photos were released to the media.
DENR maintains that the state agency’s inspection discovery was independent of Waterkeeper Alliance’s investigation.
On Tuesday, a federal grand jury convened as part of a widening criminal investigation triggered by the coal ash spill in Eden, the Associated Press reported. The jury will examine whether state regulators, DENR officials included, helped shield Duke Energy regarding its negligence.