LUMBERTON — A Robeson County state legislator plans to meet with Duke Energy officials sometime next week to discuss potential environmental problems that could result from coal ash contained in a pond at the site of the company’s former Weatherperson Steam Electric Plant in Lumberton.
“I have received concerns raised by a number of constituents about the coal ash in a pond at the old Weatherspoon site,” said Rep. Charles Graham, whose district encompasses Robeson County. “I have been in contact with Duke Energy officials and they have extended me an opportunity to visit the site so I can observe the pond and discuss with them the impact the coal ash in the pond could have on the Lumber River.”
Lumber River advocates want Duke Energy to move the coal ash from the pond to a lined facility to prevent any contaminants from leaking into groundwater. Three contaminants — iron, thallium and manganese — have been found over time to extend state limits in a ground water monitoring well near the Lumber River, according to internal state Department of Environment and Natural Resources emails obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The Southern Environmental Law Center is currently spearheading the legal efforts to shut down Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.
On Thursday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled that Duke Energy must take immediate action to eliminate any source of groundwater pollution at its coal ash dumps across the state. The ruling comes just a month after a huge coal ash spill from a Duke energy facility in Eden left about 70 miles of the Dan River coated in a toxic gray sludge.
North Carolina has 14 coal-fired plants and at least 32 ash dumps. The coal ash is stored in unlined, leaky pits near public waterways, and according to complaints filed by environmental groups despite monitoring, wells showing contaminated groundwater at ash dumps regulators have failed to take action to keep the environment safe.
Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, told The Robesonian on Thursday that a decision has not yet been made on how to close the coal ash pond at Weatherspoon. The Weatherspoon plant was closed in 2011, and it was demolished in November.
Reportedly there are three ways the coal ash pond can be closed. These include: a full excavation, requiring the removal of all the ash; a cap in place, where the entire basin would be covered with a synthetic liner; and a hybrid method, involving a combination of a cap and excavation.
“Closing ash basins was a high priority of our company, and still is, before the spill on the Dan River,” Culbert said. “We are highly focused on closing these basins in a way that is a best fit for the community and environment.”
Culbert said that she could not answer questions specifically about the three contaminants found in the ground water monitoring well at the site of the old Weatherspoon plant.
“In light of the events (at the Eden facility) we are re-evaluating closing plans for our plants,” she said.
In addition to 14 facilities in North Carolina, Duke operates facilities in several other states. These states include Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida.
According to The Fayetteville Observer, the last water compliance inspection completed at Weatherspoon by the Environmental Protection Agency was on Jan. 26, 2012. The inspection revealed no issues, the paper said.
The Fayetteville paper reported that the ash pond at Weatherspoon includes sections on the north side that were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. The south side of the ash pond was constructed in 1979.
Lumberton City Manager Wayne Horne said Thursday that he is not aware of any problems at the old Weatherspoon site that has endangered the quality of Lumberton’s water supply. He said, however, that the coal ash pond is “located beyond the point” of the city’s water intake.
Graham said that he, like others in Robeson County, is concerned about what coal ash in the pond could do to the Lumber River River if it is not removed.
“I am certainly willing to work with Duke with developing its closure plan for the pond,” he said. “…We need to get to the bottom of this. If there needs to be further action taken, I’m going to insist that it be done.”