New data from federally mandated testing has found elevated levels of radiation in groundwater at 11 of 18 Duke Energy coal plants. Environmentalists and Duke disagree over what the numbers mean.
The data comes from a new round of groundwater monitoring required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency at coal-fired power plants nationwide. Duke posted thousands of pages of data on its website last week. Environmental groups, including the Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice, dug through it and discovered the radioactivity numbers.
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said it highlights the problems with coal ash, the residue left after burning coal that's stored in unlined pits around these plants.
“It's just one more reason, and it seems like we keep getting them, why the best solution is to excavate this material - recycle it in concrete or move it to lined storage,” Perkins said.
The tests found radium and other radioactive materials - which occur naturally in coal - in high concentrations in monitoring wells close to coal ash storage sites. In some cases, like the Marshall plant on Lake Norman, levels were 2½ times what the federal government allows in drinking water, Perkins said.
This wasn't a test of drinking water - just groundwater on Duke property near coal ash pits. Perkins said people should still be concerned because water from Lake Norman eventually flows into the intakes for public water supplies farther down the Catawba River, including those for Charlotte.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the tests don't say anything about drinking water.
“The string of monitoring wells is located immediately next to the ash basin," Culbert said. "So it provides a really fine-tuned look, but it is not representative to conditions further away on the plant property, or even off the plant property, where neighbors might reside."
Duke is excavating coal ash at most of its plants in North and South Carolina. Duke is hoping to leave ash in place at six North Carolina plants, including the Marshall plant and the Allen plant on Lake Wylie - west of Charlotte. She said the new test results don't change those plans, though it could lead to additional safety measures.
“At the places closest to Charlotte - Allen and the Marshall Plant - we know from continued testing that the groundwater near the ash basins themselves is actually flowing away from neighbors,” Culbert said.
She also said concerns about radioactivity are premature. The company still has to know what the natural levels of radioactivity are around the sites.
Allen and Marshall have some of Duke's largest coal-ash sites - totaling more than 50 million tons. Culbert said requiring them to be excavated isn't warranted by science, and would be too disruptive and expensive.
March 2, 2018, Waterkeeper Alliance, Waterkeeper.org, "Groundwater Monitoring Reveals Widespread Radioactivity At Duke Energy Coal Plants."
Duke Energy website on coal ash disposal compliance, with the latest reports.