I-Team investigates coal ash ponds on Cape Fear River


We went out on the water to get a first-hand look at what environmentalists and the state agree is illegal pollution.

This particular coal ash facility has a couple different issues, and appears to be in violation of state law. While state officials know this, and even as environmentalists make noise about it, very little has been done to stop it.

Arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, manganese, and iron. Those are just some of the heavy metals environmentalists expect to find in large doses along the dams in the Cape Fear River in Chatham County.

Going back decades, Duke has been dumping the by-product of burning coal into five ponds at the head of the Cape Fear River. It's right where the Deep and the Haw Rivers come together.

Last summer, the EPA said the berms holding back the same sludge that went spewing into the Dan River back in February are all in poor condition.

But while the integrity of those dams is something Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette is keeping his eye on, it's not why he came out on this day.

The ash pits aren't lined, and when the contents of the pit start showing up on the other side of them, it's called seep. Environmentalists say it's happening up and down these berms.

"You'll know it when you see it," said Pete Harrison, with the Waterkeeper Alliance.  "It just looks extremely unnatural. It looks gooey and just looks really nasty."

The Waterkeeper Alliance is out with Burdette collecting samples of what looks to have seeped right out of the pond.

"That's carrying all those things that you find in coal ash, all of those toxins and heavy metals. You know, straight into the river," said Burdette.

Where that's happening, it's a violation of state law, and the state can stop it.

If Duke knows about it, and doesn't fix it, that could make it a felony. However, it turns out, the seeps are no secret.

"We certainly think that it's violating state law," said DENR Communications Director Drew Elliot.

Elliot says that's part of the reason the state sued Duke over the summer. He says the agency saw that as the best way to get Duke to stop illegally polluting.

Jon Camp: "Why bother with a lawsuit? Why not just tell them to stop?

Elliot: "Well, the utility contended that these were not violations of the Clean Water Act."

But a judge's ruling a few days ago may be a game changer. He said the state does have the authority to make Duke stop the pollution at its source.

Elliot says they are looking at that ruling, and are already requiring action at high priority plants.

"Our high priority plants are Asheville, Riverbend, Sutton, which is in Wilmington, and Dan River for obvious reasons, because that's where the spill was," said Elliot.

Jon Camp: "But there's nothing that says these things can't happen in tandem. There's nothing that says these things can't happen now too."

"I think we'll see action to make that happen, but practically dealing with all these things at once may be an issue so we have to prioritize," said Elliot.

But environmentalists go back to the Dan River, which is now the unfortunate poster child of what can happen when something goes wrong at a coal ash lagoon.

Duke has more than 30 of those lagoons along North Carolina waterways.

"So you've got to take this stuff. You've got to get it out of the ground," said Burdette. "You've got to take it off our waterways and put it in a lined landfill. It's not something that happens overnight. I don't think any expects it to happen overnight, but we need to remove the coal ash from the waterways."

That's what the governor has directed Duke to do -- get the ash out of its ponds near waterways, which is all of them. So far, the company has only committed to doing that at three of its 14 plants.

On Cape Fear specifically, no one from Duke would go on camera with us, but they sent this statement: "The Cape Fear ash dams remain safe and are inspected and monitored routinely by professionals inside and outside the company, as well as our regulators. Closing ash basins at Cape Fear and our other retired plants is a high priority and ultimately resolves these issues."

They didn't say what closing ash basins entails. If it means moving the ash, or just capping the dump, and they didn't off any kind of timetable for when that high priority would happen.

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