New Rules for Coal Ash Ponds

State finally gets around to requiring Duke Energy to monitor the groundwater around coal ash ponds
Chris Edwards
Water discharges from the Allen Steam Station coal ash pond directly into Lake Wylie.

Shortly after our article about David Merryman, the Catawba Riverkeeper, and his quest to protect the river we all rely on for survival hit the stands, the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality attached a new requirement to Duke Energy’s discharge permits for the company’s three coal plants along the Catawba River.

In order for the energy company to comply with its new discharge permits, or licenses to pollute, it will have to install new groundwater sampling wells and submit the data they collect from those wells to the state on a regular basis.

As you’ll recall from the article, Riverbend is a Duke Energy coal plant on the edge of Mountain Island Lake—a.k.a. our drinking water. Not only does that plant drain water from its two high-hazard coal ash ponds into the lake at the rate of millions of gallons per day, environmentalists are also concerned about the company’s own reports that the groundwater beneath the ponds is contaminated.

Neither of the ponds are lined and both were built before any type of environmental regulation was in place. What’s worse, says Merryman, it appears the state hasn’t paid much attention to the ponds—one built in 1957 and the other in 1986.

So, for him, the fact that the state is attaching the groundwater monitoring requirement to the plant’s permit isn’t much of a victory. "It’s something they should have been doing—something they overlooked—for years," he says. "The ponds should have been on their radar screen all along, but they weren’t."

The state was waiting on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a representative for the state, and that guidance hasn’t come. Lisa Jackson, the agency’s administrator, promised to make an announcement about new coal ash regulations by the end of 2009, but she didn’t. Industry lobbyists, of course, are campaigning against any regulation, a fact that’s snagged the new regulations in Washington’s endless supply of red tape.

Duke Energy has only collected sample data from the groundwater beneath the two ponds for a little over a year and, until now, doing so was considered voluntary according to an agreement the coal industry and the waste management industry made with the E.P.A. in 2000.
When asked why it took eight years to install the first round of groundwater wells at Riverbend, Andy Thompson, a Duke Energy representative, says it was because the company was busy installing wells at all of their plants during that time.

Merryman, the Riverkeeper, says he expects these wells to be installed within the year. However, he’s frustrated the state didn’t impose a deadline on the installation. Nor did they mention how often the company will be required to submit groundwater sample data. That’s one reason why he’s looking forward to reviewing a draft of the new discharge permits.

Riverbend’s current discharge permit expires on February 28. Before the new permit will go into effect, a draft of the permit will be made available to the public. At that time, the public can voice their concerns about the permits, which are only renewed every five years. The state will make an announcement in The Charlotte Observer when the draft becomes available, signaling the beginning of the public comment period—which is expected to last for thirty days. If the new permit isn’t in place by March 1, the company will likely be granted an extension of their current permit.

The company may very well need that extension since Merryman says his organization plans to request a public hearing on the permits. No telling how long that will take.

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