An attorney with the conservation group Southern Environmental Law Center is calling Duke Energy’s removal of free water from coal ash basins at its L.V. Sutton plant an “good step” in protecting the Cape Fear River and New Hanover County’s Flemington community’s water supply from pollution.
The Flemington community, located near the Sutton plant, has historically relied on ground water wells for its drinking water. Seepage of contaminated water from the coal ash ponds could pose a threat to the safety of that well water.
Free water, or free-standing water, refers to water that is no less than three feet from the ash, according to officials at Duke Energy.
Friday, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced on its website
it had received notification from Duke Energy that the utilities company had “successfully completed the removal of free-standing water from its ash basins [at the Sutton Energy Complex], which immediately reduces the threat of negative environmental impacts.”
Decanting the water, as Duke Energy has done, consists of lowering the free-standing water level to no less than three feet above coal ash that has settled in basins, according to the DEQ post.
Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Chapel Hill office of the SELC, said Monday that the water removal at the Sutton site was good news.
“Removing this free-standing water is a first step toward the total cleanup of dangerous leaking coal ash storage at Sutton,” Holleman subsequently wrote in an email Monday. “Over the opposition of Duke Energy and DEQ, conservation groups fought for this cleanup for a year before Duke Energy agreed to the cleanup after the Dan River spill.”
Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at DEQ, said in the post the progress toward permanently closing these coal ash ponds was good to see.
“The environmental department will continue to monitor this process closely to ensure that there are no negative impacts to the environment and that all coal ash is safely stored,” he continued.
With the decanting process completed, Duke Energy is beginning the installation of a water treatment system to treat the remaining water, Harry Sideris, Duke Energy senior vice president for environmental health and safety, said in a letter to Reeder.
Sideris said Duke Energy will maintain the free-standing water at the new level until the next water removal process can begin. In this next step, further water is removed from spaces within the basins.
This process, called dewatering, is done “under strict monitoring by state environmental officials,” according to the website post.
While expressing approval of the progress at Sutton, Holleman said much remains to be done at other coal ash sites in the state.
“Still, at seven other locations throughout North Carolina, Duke Energy has not committed to move their coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage, and DEQ is not taking action to protect our rivers by requiring removal of the coal ash from those unlined pits. Every community and every river in North Carolina should receive the same protection as what the community and conservationists have obtained at the Sutton facility in Wilmington,” he wrote Monday.
DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher said in an email Monday afternoon that the department is launching "a robust public participation process" in March to receive public comments
on the proposed classifications of the other sites. Those classifications will determine the pace at which cleanup will occur.
North Carolina's coal ash law requires that impoundments at Duke Energy’s Sutton, Asheville, Riverbend and Dan River facilities - the four classified already as high risk - be permanently closed by Aug. 1, 2019. The remaining 10 sites will be prioritized for closure based on the level of risk they present to the environment and public health, with all coal ash ponds and discharges from those ponds eliminated no later than 2029, the post stated.
Coal ash is already being removed from basins at the Sutton site
and relocated to lined pits in Chatham County.