Duke Energy settles lawsuit over Sutton plant; submits post-hurricane Plan of Action for Lee

Two smokestacks from Duke Energy's Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington

Duke Energy Sutton plant near Wilmington (Photo: Duke Energy)

Duke Energy has settled a lawsuit with three environmental groups by contributing $1 million to a fund that will be used to protect the Lower Cape Fear Basin at and below the Sutton plant in Wilmington. Under the terms of the agreement, the utility will also provide up to $250,000 in matching funds raised by conservation groups.

Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance had sued the utility over coal ash contamination from the Sutton plant. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the plaintiffs.

“With this settlement the conservation groups have now achieved their goals to address Duke Energy’s coal ash storage at Sutton,” said Frank Holleman, SELC senior attorney, in a prepared statement. “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 water line; and now the waters of the Cape Fear will be improved to compensate for the coal ash pollution of our waters.”

An oversight board will administer the funds. It will be composed of representatives of Cape Fear River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, Duke Energy, UNC Wilmington’s Department of Environmental Studies, NOAA and the Southeastern North Carolina Environmental Justice Coalition.

By court order or settlement, conservation groups have resolved litigation with Duke Energy at eight of 14 unlined coal ash sites in North Carolina. Coal ash at Riverbend, Asheville, Sutton, Dan River, H.F. Lee, Weatherspoon and Buck must be excavated and moved to dry, lined storage or be recycled for concrete.

However, six sites are still subject to lawsuits over the clean up: Mayo, Roxboro, Belew’s Creek, Cliffside (now known as Rogers), Marshall and Allen.

Plan of Action to address contamination from Hurricane Matthew

In late October, Duke Energy also submitted a Plan of Action to NC DEQ to address any contamination from the Lee plant in Goldsboro that occurred because of Hurricane Matthew.

That plan called for sampling and monitoring for heavy metals and other chemicals associated with coal ash.

Record flooding from the hurricane pushed water from the Neuse River through an emergency spillway at a 545-acre cooling pond. Rising waters then toppled the berm, causing a breach in the dam. The pond did not contain coal ash, but provided cooling water to the power plants on site, which included the coal fired unit before it was retired in 2012. Duke officials said sampling indicated there were no significant impacts to the river.

A triangle pond also flooded. It was used briefly in the 1980s to accept chemical metal cleaning waste from the old coal-fired units at the Lee complex. The pond is enclosed and has no discharge system. Currently, the pond only receives stormwater from rain. Before the hurricane hit, Duke estimates the pond contained about 2 million gallons of water.

But during the heavy rains of Oct. 8-9, flooding from the Neuse overtopped the pond dike, allowing the old stormwater to mix with the river. Duke sampling shows that levels of copper were elevated above water quality standard of 2.7 parts per billion.

Three inactive coal basins also flooded, releasing cenospheres, a byproduct of coal ash into the Neuse.

Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, spotted the cenospheres while surveilling the dam and ponds near the plant. He criticized Duke for “changing its story many times” over the contamination.  Duke and NC DEQ both maintained that cenospheres, hollow balls of silicone and aluminum, are inert. However, these hollow balls can also contain arsenic and other heavy metals that are also present in fly ash.

“They aren’t inert,” Starr said of the material. “And DEQ supported [Duke Energy], which is just as upsetting.”

Since the storm waters receded, Duke has built a temporary dam at the cooling pond while the utility secures permits for a permanent one. Duke has also installed barriers outside of an inactive ash basin, and vacuumed the cenospheres, although in the wetlands, workers may use hand tools to avoid further damaging the area. Duke’s plan also calls for covering exposed ash in the eroded area within the basin with dirt and stone. Any removed solid materials will be put in the active basin. Water could be placed in either the active or inactive basins. 

Public hearings on Duke Energy plants

Monday, Nov. 28, 6 p.m., Dennis Wicker Civic Center, 1801 Nash St., Sanford: Comment on the draft wastewater discharge permit from the Cape Fear plant

Thursday, Dec. 8, 6 p.m., Robeson Community College A.D. Lewis Auditorium, 5160 Fayetteville Road, Lumberton: Comment on the draft wastewater discharge permit from the Weatherspoon plant



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