A new settlement between Duke Energy and several conservation groups has resulted in the formation of a fund to protect the Cape Fear River.
The Cape Fear River Restoration and Preservation Fund was created after it was announced last week that Duke Energy will pay $1 million in a settlement with conservation groups for water quality and conservation efforts in the lower Cape Fear watershed near Wilmington.
That figure could grow to $1.5 million, as Duke Energy said it will provide up to $250,000 in additional funds for the effort, as a dollar-for-dollar match for other funds raised by conservation groups.
Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance had been in litigation with Duke Energy over coal ash pollution at Duke Energy’s Sutton facility next to Sutton Lake and the Cape Fear River.
“This settlement will benefit the waters, lands, and communities of the lower Cape Fear Watershed for years to come,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who represents the conservation groups in the case.
“With this settlement, the conservation groups have now achieved their goals to address Duke Energy’s coal ash storage at Sutton," he said in a news release. "The Sutton coal ash is being moved to safe dry, lined storage, the water from the Sutton coal ash lagoons is being treated, the Flemington community has gotten a waterline, and now the waters of the Cape Fear will be improved to compensate for the coal ash pollution of our waters."
The funds will be administered and invested by an oversight board made up of representatives from Cape Fear River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, Duke Energy, the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Southeastern North Carolina Environmental Justice Coalition.
The money could be used for things like conservation easements, education and equipment that benefits the river and its tributaries and wetlands.
“The Cape Fear River and its watershed will benefit tremendously from this settlement,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear River Watch executive director and Riverkeeper. “We’ve been fighting to protect the waters of the Cape Fear from coal ash pollution, and this settlement is a step forward in restoring the Cape Fear and its watershed.”
In a news release from Duke Energy on Nov. 23, the company stated that, “More than three decades of sampling using well accepted scientific techniques and hundreds of thousands of fish observations demonstrates that water quality in Sutton Lake remains good, with trace elements within state water quality standards. Fish populations are thriving, healthy and safe to eat. We also routinely sample water quality in the Cape Fear River, which continues to be good with no concerns for fish or other aquatic life.
“We remain committed to safely closing ash basins across the state in ways that protect the public, the environment and the costs our customers pay," the statement continued.
This latest settlement ends the suit filed in 2013 by Cape Fear River Watch, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. They had accused Duke of violating the Clean Water Act because toxic metals and other pollutants from coal ash were flowing into Sutton Lake next to the energy plant.
“People throughout the Wilmington region will benefit from this settlement and the outcome of this effort,” said Dave Rogers, the Sierra Club’s representative in North Carolina, in a news release. “The river, the lake, and groundwater supplies will be protected by the ash removal, and the water resources of the region will be enhanced by the efforts funded by this $1.5 million settlement.”