State environmental officials say they are not surprised by Duke Energy’s recent reports of contaminated groundwater near coal ash pits at the Belews Creek Steam Station and three other coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

Slight increases in chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and beryllium in groundwater drawn right beside utility waste ponds are not cause for alarm, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality said.

“The exceedances reported are not unexpected, especially since these sample results are collected from wells located adjacent to the waste boundary of a coal ash impoundment, which is near the source material,” said Sarah Young of the DEQ’s Raleigh office.

Young’s comment came in answer to the News & Record’s request for the agency’s perspective on recent assertions by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill that the new disclosures showed that “more toxic substances are polluting the water at Duke Energy coal ash sites across North Carolina.”

The environmental group made the statement after Duke Energy posted public acknowledgements that groundwater testing showed higher trace levels of certain chemicals around ash ponds at Belews Creek Steam Station and at plants near Roxboro, Lumberton and Lake Norman.

At Belews Creek in Stokes County northwest of Greensboro, the company reported such an “exceedance” of federal groundwater standards for mercury. It had previously reported similar groundwater overages there for arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lithium and two forms of radium.

Such public acknowledgements are required under federal law whenever groundwater testing near a coal ash pond shows that a chemical contaminant has increased above a safety threshold administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Young said the data Duke Energy reported most recently was “generally consistent” with what the utility has been submitting under a state law that is stricter overall than the federal “Coal Combustion Residuals” rule that triggered the company’s filings.

Duke Energy is governed by both the EPA’s federal standards and the state Coal Ash Management Act, Young said, adding that North Carolina’s so-called CAMA requirements are “typically more stringent” than corresponding federal guidelines.

Southern Environmental Law Center lawyer Frank Holleman said that the environmental group had not overreacted to the federal filings by Duke Energy, noting that these standards were “put in place to require notification of the extent of pollution of the environment by coal ash pits across the country.”

“The rule sets national standards and testing requirements, apart from requirements set by the states,” the senior SELC attorney said Wednesday. “These recent required filings inform the public that additional toxic groundwater pollution has entered the environment from these Duke Energy sites.”

But Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton depicted the situation as emblematic of a “concerted effort by environmental groups to mislead the public.”

“They consistently omit the fact that the impact shown in these CCR reports is to groundwater right under or beside our ash basins, as they’re well aware,” Norton said, using the acronym for the federal “Coal Combustion Residuals” program.

Extensive testing of groundwater, lakes and streams by a variety of experts has shown repeatedly that “drinking and recreational water supplies remain safe from coal ash impacts,” Norton said.

The state coal ash law requires Duke Energy to safely close by 2030 all of its coal ash storage basins at Belews Creek and 13 other current or former coal-fired plants statewide. That includes cleaning up the groundwater.

Over the years, the utility has amassed millions of tons of coal ash submerged in basins throughout North Carolina. The basins were developed in the days when coal-fired power was in vogue and initially were seen as a safe way to sequester a pollutant that was more of an airborne threat to human health.

State lawmakers adopted the Coal Ash Management Act in the aftermath of a major coal ash spill from a storage basin at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden in February 2014.

The relationship between state DEQ and Duke Energy is one of regulator to supervised industry. The agency’s duties include overseeing the utility as it gathers scientific evidence and begins closing out its ash basins at 14 sites in North Carolina.

Despite their agreement on the threat level posed by Duke Energy’s recent federal filings, DEQ and the utility are at odds in legal challenges involving Belews Creek and five other active or retired coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

They are battling each other in the state Office of Administrative Hearings over DEQ’s order dictating how the utility should close its coal ash basins at Belews Creek and the other five plants.

State environmental regulators ruled this spring that Duke Energy must close those particular basins by excavating and reburying the now submerged waste in lined landfills, the disposal method that the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups strongly favor as the only way to make sure coal ash is laid to rest in ways that fully protect the environment.

But Duke Energy contends that it could protect the environment just as effectively by “capping in place” at Belews Creek and the other five disputed sites.

That less costly process would leave much of the coal ash in place after each basin is drained. But it then would cover the waste beneath an impervious cap that the utility contends would be just as effective as burying it in a lined landfill.

The company has agreed with DEQ’s finding that landfill disposal is the best closure method at the former Dan River plant and seven other North Carolina sites that are not in dispute.

A spokesman for the Office of Administrative Hearings said Duke Energy’s separate appeals for each of the six, contested plants have been consolidated into one case that is pending before an administrative judge in Charlotte.

The two sides are scheduled for a mediation conference in late July where they will try to work out their differences, the spokesman said. If they can’t reach an agreement, he said, the case will proceed to a contested hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

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