Duke University researchers find high levels of selenium in lakes receiving coal ash discharge

Sutton Lake near the Sutton plant operated by Duke Energy. Fish in the lake had high levels of selenium, a component of coal ash. (Photo: Jessica Brandt)

At 1,100 acres, Sutton Lake is home to schools of largemouth bass, catfish and crappie. However, the lake also contains high levels of selenium, both in the surface water and in muscles of fish, a consequence of years of coal ash discharge from Duke Energy power plant near its shores.

Duke University scientists at the Nicholas School of the Environment announced the results of a study yesterday that showed levels of selenium were elevated in two of the three lakes sampled.

In Sutton Lake, 85 percent of all fish muscle samples examined contained selenium levels above the EPA’s threshold of 11.3 parts per million. In Mayo Lake near the Roxboro plant, 27 percent of samples exceeded EPA criteria. Levels were below the EPA criteria in Mountain Island Lake near the Riverbend plant in Charlotte.

All of the surface water samples in Sutton tested above the EPA threshold of 1.5 parts per billion. At Mayo, there was just one water exceedance, in “pore water” collected from sediment near the power plant.

Selenium is naturally occurring, but is also a main component of coal ash. It often enters surface water through discharges from power plants. Each day, millions of gallons of wastewater, which is treated, but far from pristine, are discharged into the lakes — popular destinations for boating, swimming and fishing.

“Across the board, we’re seeing elevated selenium levels in fish from lakes affected by coal combustion residual effluents,” said Jessica Brandt, a doctoral student in environmental health at the Nicholas School who led the study.

Brandt and her colleagues Emily Bernhardt, Gary Dwyer and Richard Di Giulio published their peer-reviewed study Feb. 6 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The samples were taken over three months in 2015.

Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert said utility officials have not seen the study, but noted that it “diligently meets permit limits that were designed to protect the environment.”

Fish and other aquatic life exposed to high levels of selenium can develop deformities, and in extreme cases, die. Their growth and reproduction can also be impaired. Because selenium accumulates in the food chain, it also can be toxic to birds that eat aquatic animals containing high levels.

“We’re less worried about human effects at these levels,” Brandt said. “We’re more worried about the fish and birds.”

Exacerbating the problem, Sutton Lake is nearly a closed system, Brandt said, and gets freshwater from the Lower Cape Fear only from an intake pump operated by the utility. There is no way for water to leave the lake except by evaporation. That means water in the lake has what’s known as a “long residence time.”

The Sutton plants no longer burns coal and its ash basins are being closed. In 2013, Duke Energy converted the plant to natural gas. However, in the past Sutton Lake had received unregulated discharges from adjacent coal ash ponds, and that residue has settled at the bottom of the lake. “Moreover, there is an immense repository of selenium in the  lake’s sediments that seems to be increasing with time,” the study says.

By comparison, Mountain Isle has what is known as a “short retention” time, meaning water circulates more frequently in and out of the lake. That might have contributed to its lower selenium levels; the Riverbend coal-fired plant has also been retired and its basins are also being closed. Read more


Roxboro residents: No coal ash in our holiday stocking


The house of David Farnam, who lives within a half-mile of Duke Energy's Roxboro plant. He is decorating his yard with Santas and snowmen.

David Farman lives down the road from Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant. He and his family — wife, daughter and two grandchildren — receive bottled water from the utility because their well could be contaminated.                                                                                                                       (Photo Lisa Sorg)

A week before Thanksgiving, with the temperature in the mid-60s, David Farman bedecked his yard with dozens of Christmas decorations: A small herd of lighted reindeer, a parade of Nativity scenes, a smattering of gift boxes, and a flotilla of inflatable Santas and snowmen.

For more than a decade, Farman has lived on this one acre lot in rural Person County, down Dunnaway Road from Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant. Ironically, he doesn’t get his electricity from Duke, but he does receive bottled water from the utility for his family of five and his flock of pet birds.

His well could be contaminated with chemicals from coal ash — some 35 million tons — that is stored in two ash basins at the Roxboro plant. Some of the material is being excavated to an onsite lined landfill, but Duke wants to leave the rest of it in the basins  and de-water and cover it, a disposal method known as cap in place.

The utility submitted its closure plans to the EPA earlier this month, which is legally required under the federal Coal Combustion Residuals Rule. Duke defends cap in place as meeting federal and state environmental standards (which is accurate, although one could argue about their rigor). However, it’s also true since the basins would lack a bottom liner, contaminants could still leech into the groundwater.

Or, in the event of a flood, the force of the water could breach the basins and release the ash. Last month, flooding from Hurricane Matthew inundated one of the inactive coal basins, which released cenospheres — a byproduct of coal ash that can contain arsenic — into the Neuse River.

Duke justifies the cap in place method as “eliminating the need for new disposal locations” and “lowering emissions from trucks that would haul the ash away.” But new landfills and 1 million truck trips — the estimated number required to remove the ash from the Roxboro plant — would also be very expensive for the utility. Leaving the ash in place is the cheapest way out — for Duke.

Coal ash left in the ground is particularly ominous if the basins sit below the water table. And water issues recently mobilized more than 100 Person County residents to attend a hearing on Duke’s wastewater discharge permit issued by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. (The wastewater permit is a separate issue from the ash storage plan.)

Duke Energy's Mayo Plant looms in the distance over Mayo Lake, which is flanked by forest.

Duke Energy’s Mayo plant in Person County lies near Mayo Lake, popular among hikers, campers, boaters and fishers. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water — 70 billion to 180 billion gallons a year — to create steam for turning turbines and generating electricity. That’s why the Roxboro and Mayo plants are near Hyco and Mayo lakes. A portion of the water is also used for “scrubbing” — reducing the level of some contaminants from the coal — equipment cleaning, coal pile runoff, plus water from toilets and sinks inside the plants.

Each day, millions of gallons of wastewater, which is treated, but far from pristine, are discharged into the lakes — popular destinations for boating, swimming and fishing.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, opposed the discharge permits in part because the state’s monitoring requirements are weak. For example, the permit would allow the utility to discharge as much as 2 million gallons of water per day from the top of the ash pond into Mayo Lake. Only weekly sampling would be required.

Taylor also said the monitoring would not include some contaminants, and others, such as hexavalent chromium, have no enforceable limits under the proposed permit. And  Duke could discharge contaminated wastewater into unpermitted groundwater seeps.

More than 1,000 homes also border the lakes, and there are stringent local restrictions on what can be built or installed on these lots. “It took five years for me to get a septic permit from the county,” said Harry Grubbs. “This is ridiculous. What happens if Duke decides to leave these plants. I’m fully against this. Anyone with any sense would be against it, too.”

Lisa Hughes lives near the Roxboro plant, although outside the half-mile radius where the state requires well testing. She had her well independently tested and the results prompted her to dig another well, this one 180 feet deep.

Likewise, Farman has little confidence that he could access uncontaminated groundwater at his house. “I could drill a new well, but how far would I have to go down?” he said.

A map showing the location of the coal ash ponds at the Mayo plant

Coal ash ponds at the Mayo plant (NC DEQ)

A map showing the location of coal ash ponds at the Roxboro plant

Coal ash ponds at the Roxboro plant (NC DEQ)

Roxboro and Mayo are among the remaining six coal ash sites in North Carolina that are still being litigated. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents several conservation groups, has settled with Duke or forced via court order more comprehensive cleanups at the other eight.

Senior Attorney Frank Holleman said there are still pending state court actions against Duke at the Mayo, Roxboro, Belew’s Creek, Rogers/Cliffside, Allen and Marshall sites.

In addition, a federal suit is pending, filed by SELC on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association, over wastewater discharges into Mayo Lake that could violate the Clean Water Act.

“The people of North Carolina have waited long enough for a cleanup,” said Dave Rogers,  state director of Environment North Carolina   representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, at the public hearing. “Removing coal ash from the Roxboro and Mayo plants is the only way to do it.”



Coal Blooded – Report by the NAACP

The NAACP recently released a report, Coal Blooded, which documents the “Environmental Justice Performance” of all coal fired power plants around the country. The report ranks the 378 plants using EPA toxic emissions data and demographic information – race, income and population density. The report shows that the six million Americans living near coal plants have an average income lower than the national average and 39% are people of color – whereas people of color make up 36% of the US population. Read more

Environment, News

Environmental advocates push back against Duke Energy’s refusal to give in on coal ash excavation

Environmental advocates pushed back today against Duke Energy’s decision to appeal a ruling from the Department of Environmental Quality that it must excavate all of the coal ash from the utility’s remaining unlined pits. As Lisa Sorg reported in this space last month, Duke announced that it would contest DEQ’s ruling based on its contention that it was not based upon a “full consideration of the science and engineering” involved and that full excavation would impose “financial burdens” on its customers and the economy.

Today, lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the Duke appeal. This is from a press release issued by the group:

Groups Move to Defend N.C. Order that Duke Energy Must Clean Up Coal Ash Pollution at Six Sites: Duke’s Refusal Follows Years of Public Outcry, Pollution, Crimes & Spills

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Community groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center moved to intervene in appeals filed by Duke Energy in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings in which Duke Energy tries to avoid cleaning up its coal ash pollution at six sites in North Carolina. At those sites, Duke Energy stores toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking pits sitting in groundwater next to rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs. For years and again in 2019, thousands of North Carolina families have called upon the state government and Duke Energy to clean up all of Duke’s leaking, unlined coal ash pits across the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center represents the following groups in today’s filings: Appalachian Voices, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, MountainTrue, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sierra Club, the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

“All of North Carolina’s waters and all its families deserve protection from Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents the groups in court seeking cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution. “Years of study show the only way to protect North Carolina families is to remove Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash waste from polluting, unlined waterfront pits.  When the coal ash from all of Duke’s sites is finally out of our groundwater in dry, lined storage at each site, North Carolina’s rivers will be cleaner, North Carolina’s drinking water will be safer, and North Carolina’s communities will be more secure.”   Read more


Duke Energy to DEQ: See you in court

Duke Energy announced yesterday that it would appeal to the Administrative Office of the Courts the state’s order to excavate all of the coal ash from the utility’s nine remaining unlined pits, also known as basins.

In a prepared statement, Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the order, which was issued on April 1, “would impose a financial burden on our customers and the economy of the Carolinas through the most expensive and disruptive closure option possible, despite that these basins are rated ‘low risk’ by NCDEQ.”

Duke has stated full excavation would add $4 billion to $5 billion to the existing $5.6 billion in costs to clean up all of its ash in the Carolinas — a number that, given the history of other utilities’ estimates for full excavation, could be inflated.

The nine basins are spread over six plants:

Belews Creek (Stokes County ) 1
Marshall (Catawba County) 1
Mayo (Person County) 1
Allen (Gaston County) 2
Roxboro  (Person County) 2
Cliffside/Rogers (Cleveland/Rutherford counties) 2


In 2016, under the a different administration of Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, the state reclassified several of Duke Energy’s basins from high risk to intermediate risk, based on several factors, including groundwater flow. Low risk basins were not required to be cleaned up until 2029. Environmental groups immediate criticized the reclassification, charging politics, not science guided the reclassifications.

For the “low risk” basins, Duke had proposed to either cap the material in the unlined pits — or to develop a “hybrid” of excavation and cap-in-place. At public meetings across the state, residents demanded that DEQ force the utility to fully excavate all of the material and place it in a lined landfill.

In its order, DEQ said its science determined excavation was the clean up method that would be the most protective of health and the environment.

“The process by which NCDEQ arrived at its decision lacked full consideration of the science and engineering, and we will provide those details when we file an appeal before the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings in the near future” Sheehan said.

“DEQ stands by its assessment and conclusions that all coal ash in North Carolina must be excavated,” said Megan Thorpe, DEQ’s director of Public Affairs, in response.

Duke Energy’s claims that full excavation would impose “financial burdens” on its customers and the economy. It’s likely that the state Utilities Commission would pass along some of the costs to ratepayers, but the commission told Duke in the last rate case that it would evaluate those on a “case-by-case” basis. Duke gave no rationale for its claim that full excavation would harm  the economies of North and South Carolina. There is no evidence that full excavation has had similar effects in other states where that method has been used.

Frank Holleman is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. The SELC successfully sued the utility to force it to fully excavate its ash at the other eight plants in North Carolina. “Duke Energy’s refusal to accept responsibility for cleaning up its dangerous coal ash pits is a slap in the face to the communities in North Carolina living with the pollution from Duke’s leaking, unlined pits,” Holleman said in a prepared statement. “Duke Energy’s decision to fight these cleanups ignores the science confirming that its sites have been polluting our water for decades and will continue to do so for centuries. And it places the public and our rivers and lakes at continued risk of another coal ash catastrophe from the next hurricane or structural failure.”