Utilities to face more regulation of contamination from coal ash ponds
A series of huge ponds Duke Energy and Progress Energy use to store the leftovers from their coal plants are coming under increased scrutiny from state water quality regulators. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: These coal ash ponds captured public attention when one escaped its dam in 2008 and inundated a Tennessee community in toxic sludge. Since then, the EPA has evaluated all thirteen such ponds operated by Duke and Progress Energy in North Carolina and determined their dams are not at risk. However, there is a growing concern about what those ponds might be doing to the state's water source. "Imagine a pond filled with coal ash bigger than the Carolina Panther's stadium," says Donna Lisenby of the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper project. . "As long as it continues to rain, and water continues to get added to that coal ash basin, it's a source of contamination that's continuing to drain and leak into ground water." Lisenby analyzed groundwater monitoring data from both Duke and Progress Energy last year and found more than 600 instances where pollutants like arsenic and lead exceeded water quality standards. Duke Energy spokesman Andy Thompson says that's true, but, "based on our review of the data, we really don't believe that we've had any potential impact on the public health and you know we'll continue to participate with the state in this process and we'll just see if there are any next steps we'll need to take in the future." Until now, Duke and Progress Energy have voluntarily monitored groundwater around their coal ash ponds. And thus far, Debra Watts of the Division of Water Quality says the state has not imposed penalties for groundwater pollution within a certain radius of the ponds. "To be fair, when they're permitted, we've allowed them to place this waste there," says Watts. "So that's why we give them a little bit of leeway up to the compliance boundary which is what the rule says. And we don't start looking at them until they exceed that." Beginning this year, Watts says the state plans to make groundwater monitoring a requirement of the permits for coal ash ponds. Duke and Progress Energy will also have to measure contamination levels further from the ponds than they have previously done.