Carcinogens, other contaminants found near Roxboro and Sutton coal ash sites as EPA looks to weaken rules

Carcinogens, other contaminants found near Roxboro and Sutton coal ash sites as EPA looks to weaken rules

- in Environment, Top Story
A map of the Roxboro plant near Semora, the location of the ash basins and waterways near the facility. Recent tests showed high levels of radioactivity and arsenic, as well as other contaminants in groundwater near the plant. (Map: Duke Energy)

Policy Watch recently reviewed more than 20,000 pages of data for a series of stories about groundwater contamination in wells around Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds: Marshall, Cliffside, Allen, Buck and Dan River. This is the final installment in the series, which covers Sutton and Roxboro in context of the recent announcement of proposed changes to coal ash rules by the EPA.

Tomorrow Policy Watch will examine proposed changes to the state rules and how the EPA’s proposal interacts with them under federal legislation known as the WIIN Act.

T he 20 million tons of coal ash stored in two ponds at Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant is not merely sitting there, inert and resting. Rather, the unlined basins are known to leak contamination into the groundwater as well as Sargeants Creek and Hyco Lake. And now it’s known, at least in part, the type and amount of toxic contamination that is seeping into the groundwater within the plant’s boundaries, heightening residents’ anxieties that it could threaten private drinking water wells.

Data recently released by Duke Energy showed concentrations of radioactivity in groundwater at Roxboro as much as 11 times the maximum contaminant level. High concentrations of arsenic, chromium, cobalt and selenium were also detected in some wells near the west and east coal ash ponds. (See bottom of story for data tables.)

And at the Sutton coal ash ponds in Wilmington, contaminant levels were equally disturbing: 461 times the groundwater standard for arsenic, a known carcinogen. And six times state and federal standards for the chemical antimony, which, when consumed in drinking water, can cause stomach ulcers and other health problems.

The results were posted on the Duke Energy website, within 20,000 pages of data for all of the utility’s North Carolina ash ponds and landfills. The utility’s next step is to try to tease out what levels are naturally occurring and what are the result of coal ash, said Erin Culbert, Duke Energy spokeswoman.

The utility has reported groundwater results before, but these findings are the first of their kind under federal coal ash rules. Yet if the EPA passes its latest round of rules, these public, federally required reports could be the last.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has proposed relaxing, and in some cases, eliminating federal rules regulating reporting, the disposal of coal ash, as well as its monitoring and cleanup. The proposal has been published in the Federal Register for public comment.

This has serious health implications for the thousands of well water users Click to Tweet

“That’s horrific,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water North Carolina. She and her group have advocated for several communities, including Roxboro, near coal ash ponds and landfills. “In terms of potential threats to drinking water and the widespread number of ponds, this has serious health implications for the thousands of well water users around the state.”

The reason, Pruitt has said on the agency’s website, is to save utilities $25 million to $100 million a year. But that figure is for all utilities nationwide. The amount is minimal in comparison to the utilities’ billions of dollars in annual profits.

Considering that Pruitt, a fossil fuel enthusiast, is cozy with the energy industry, a rule reversal isn’t surprising. (The New Yorker magazine reported this week that Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good met with Pruitt last year to discuss the utility’s “policy priorities.”) But the degree of the regulatory rollback has stunned even seasoned environmental watchdogs.

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is suing Duke Energy over its alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, called the proposal “truly crass.”

Taken in tandem with the state’s coal ash rule revisions — problematic in their own right — the EPA’s proposal has serious environmental and public implications for the nation and North Carolina.

(The proposed rules are also being fast-tracked. Pruitt determined the public didn’t need 90 days to digest and comment on an extremely detailed legal and scientific document. Instead, the public comment period was set at just 45 days. Duke plans to file comments, Culbert said.)

One of the items that could be struck is the annual reporting requirement, a predictable and official way the public can access contamination data. But Pruitt has proposed even more aggressive rollbacks in order to save utilities money, including:

  • suspending groundwater monitoring, in certain cases;
  • waiving cleanup requirements if groundwater is already contaminated by multiple sources and not used for drinking water;
  • using coal ash from the onsite plant as grading material for landfills where the utility wants to cap the ash and leave it in the ground; and
  • decreasing the amount of time a utility must monitor and maintain a coal ash landfill.

“Pruitt wants to give the utilities more outs by which they can excuse Duke from doing anything when polluting the groundwater,” said Holleman.

For example, under the proposed EPA rule changes, states could set “risk-based standards” rather than maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) that provide a bright line for regulators. Risk-based standards give state regulators, who are often under enormous political pressure, a pass to weaken rules. By replacing those MCLs with risk-based standards, Holleman said, the EPA is “going straight at the fundamentals of environmental protection.”

Among the protections are those governing groundwater. Groundwater can wind up in drinking water wells, feed springs and flow into lakes and rivers, which public utilities often use as drinking water sources. That’s why groundwater standards are set — and why the results from all of the plants, including Roxboro and Sutton’s basins, are troubling. (The difference between a pond/basin and a landfill is that the former is not lined and the existing ash stays in place, although the pond might be capped and the ash “dewatered.” A landfill is newly constructed, lined, capped and dry ash is disposed there.)

As Duke Energy’s data show, groundwater contamination within the plant boundaries, including Roxboro and Sutton, is widespread in wells. The routes, and if and how far groundwater might travel, varies depending on underground rock formations and other factors; it has yet to be determined. But if the utility and presumably, the state, find through modeling and/or field testing that groundwater isn’t migrating offsite, the EPA could suspend groundwater monitoring requirements altogether.

However, groundwater paths can change over time, based on, for example, new fractures caused by earthquakes, mining, blasting and fracking. (Belews Creek in Stokes County is one of the areas in North Carolina targeted for fracking; it also is home to a Duke Energy coal ash basin.) The EPA’s solution to this problem of the unknown is to require utilities to prove the groundwater isn’t migrating — every 10 years.

Similarly, a state could allow a utility to reduce the amount of time it must monitor the groundwater after a landfill or pond has closed. Known as “post-closure care,” this monitoring is supposed to last for 30 years. If certain thresholds are met — again, thresholds open to scientific interpretation — utilities could stop monitoring much earlier, based on what the state decides.

At Sutton, Duke is excavating its ash from the ponds and placing it in a lined landfill onsite. Other Sutton ash was shipped by rail to the former Brickhaven clay mine in Chatham County. (Groundwater is also being monitored near the mine, even though it contains a liner.) Culbert said no additional steps are necessary to manage the ash in the lined landfill at Sutton. The basins, though, will be excavated.

The EPA would also allow states and utilities to forgo groundwater cleanup “if there are multiple sources of contamination” and there is no connection to drinking water.  This provision essentially allows at least one of the polluters — the utility — to throw up its hands and abdicate responsibility for contaminated groundwater near ash ponds.

And if a state and the utility determine that a cleanup is “not technically feasible” or could further degrade the environment, then the contamination could be left in the ground. But “not technically feasible” can also be code for “expensive” and Duke Energy has already used the argument that a cleanup to could actually make things worse to justify the “cap-in-place” method of disposal at Roxboro and several other plants.

One of the main legal issues in North Carolina is whether Duke Energy should be allowed to use cap-in-place to dispose of coal ash. Under cap-in-place, the utility would dewater the ash and then install a special impermeable cap to protect the basin from rain. However, EPA’s own documents state that landfill caps can be defective because of imperfections in manufacturing or faulty installation. “EPA recognizes that no final cover, however well-constructed, will last forever.”

Now the EPA proposes allowing utilities to use coal ash produced onsite to grade and contour  the coal ash landfills. Utilities could also dispose of non-coal ash waste into these landfills. While the agency is careful to say utilities can’t use this method to pile on more ash, regulating the landfills would fall to DEQ, an agency already short-staffed and underfunded.

“It’s allowing the utilities to extend the life of the lagoon,” Holleman said.

But Culbert of Duke Energy countered that to excavate the Roxboro basins it would “take more than two decades. That would translate to significant environmental and community impacts, particularly if it had to be transported off-site.”

With 20 million tons of ash, “full excavation may not be physically possible” by the closure deadlines set out in state and federal regulations, Culbert said.

Duke Energy is providing permanent water supplies to residents who live within a half-mile of its plants, including Roxboro. However, no residents near the Roxboro plant are being connected to the city’s water system; instead Duke is installing whole-house ion exchange systems to filter out any contaminants.

There's no reason for people to believe the contamination won't increase. Click to Tweet

But ion exchange doesn’t remove radium, Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina said. And many residents “don’t trust the filtration systems,” to remove any of the contaminants, Taylor said, and are choosing to buy bottled water.

Culbert said the utility is considering if it needs additional groundwater protection measures to combine with capping the ash basins at Roxboro. The utility will determine that as part of its groundwater corrective action plan to be issued later this year.

“There’s plenty of reason to be concerned,” Taylor said. “It’s the largest cap-in-place site in the state. It’s not being put in a lined containment. There’s no reason for people to believe the contamination won’t increase.”

Pruitt’s extensive proposal would give more responsibility and power for permitting and enforcement to the states. However, this strategy in effect allows the EPA to abdicate its responsibility. As North Carolinians have seen, environmental policy and regulation can swing wildly, depending on who is in power. For example, the Republican-held legislature has repeatedly cut funding to DEQ.

DEQ should not be swept up in an effort by the EPA to weaken the rules Click to Tweet

“Why put in a new permitting program without the resources to do it?” Holleman said, adding that a state program would foreclose on the legal avenue of filing in federal court. Instead, citizens who want to sue would have to do so in state court. “DEQ should not be swept up in an effort by the EPA to weaken the rules.”

Under the leadership DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, the agency has not been hostile to environmental regulation, as were Regan’s predecessors, Donald van der Vaart and John Skvarla. However, DEQ has at times been passive in its enforcement and assessment of penalties.

Depending on future elections, the pendulum could swing back to hostility. “We’re talking not only about today,” Holleman said. “We’re talking about the long run. Under the administration of both parties, DEQ has not been either vigorously enforcing penalties toward Duke or it has been fighting citizen enforcement. We want to maximize the rights of citizens to protect their own communities. We can’t count on government to do it.”






Sutton coal ash landfill    
30 wells, 270 samples
ContaminantMaximum contaminant level/interim standardRange of exceedances, lowest to highest (ppb unless otherwise noted)Number of exceedances% of samples that exceeded maximum contaminant levels
Antimony1 ppb1.4410.03
Arsenic10 ppb10.1 – 11.331
Chloride250 ppm640 ppm10.03
Chromium10 ppb12.7 – 15.331
Cobalt1 ppb1.01 – 24.94717.4
Sulfate250 ppm260 – 280 ppm41.5
Sutton 1964 and 1971 ash basins    
65 wells, 555 samples
ContaminantMaximum contaminant level/interim standardRange of exceedances, lowest to highest (ppb unless otherwise noted)Number of exceedances% of samples that exceeded maximum contaminant levels
Antimony1 ppb1.02 – 6.27396
Arsenic10 ppb10. 3 – 46122640
Chloride250 ppm250 – 850 ppm6712
Cobalt1 ppb1.01 – 48.120336
Radionucleides5 ppb5.12 – 29.340.07
Sulfate250 ppm270 – 670 ppm40.07
Selenium20 ppb22 – 62.591
Thallium0.2 ppb0.204 – 1.3407
Roxboro west ash pond/settling ponds/flush ponds    
34 wells, 306 samples
ContaminantsMaximum contaminant level/interim standardRange of exceedances, lowest to highest (ppb unless otherwise noted)Number of exceedances% of samples that exceeded maximum contaminant levels
Arsenic10 ppb11.6 – 24.4113.5
Chloride250 ppm270 – 3400 ppm8527.7
Chromium10 ppb11 – 17.282.6
Cobalt 1 ppb1.02 – 45.217757.8
Radium 226/2285 ppb (combined)5.67 – 47.6134.2
Selenium20 ppb21 – 111103.2
Sulfate250 ppm260 – 3,80011136.2
Roxboro east ash pond/industrial landfill    
25 wells, 223 samples
ContaminantsMaximum contaminant level/interim standardRange of exceedances, lowest to highest (ppb unless otherwise noted)Number of exceedances% of samples that exceeded maximum contaminant levels
Arsenic10 ppb21.6 – 24.431.3
Chloride250 ppm270 – 3300 ppm208.9
Chromium10 ppb11 – 14.620.08
Cobalt 1 ppb1.02 – 51010044.8
Radium 226/2285 ppb (combined)5.12 – 58.883.5
Sulfate250 ppm25.8 – 3700 ppm12053