Belews Creek plant

The Belews Creek Steam Station near Stokesdale in 2015.

State environmental officials say they are not surprised by Duke Energy’s recent reports of contaminated groundwater near coal ash pits at the Belews Creek Steam Station and three other coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

Slight increases in chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and beryllium in groundwater drawn right beside utility waste ponds are not cause for alarm, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality said.

“The exceedances reported are not unexpected, especially since these sample results are collected from wells located adjacent to the waste boundary of a coal ash impoundment, which is near the source material,” said Sarah Young of the DEQ’s Raleigh office.

Young’s comment came in answer to the Greensboro News & Record’s request for the agency’s perspective on recent assertions by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill that the new disclosures showed that “more toxic substances are polluting the water at Duke Energy coal ash sites across North Carolina.”

The environmental group made the statement after Duke Energy posted public acknowledgements that groundwater testing showed higher trace levels of certain chemicals around ash ponds at Belews Creek Steam Station and at plants near Roxboro, Lumberton and Lake Norman.

At Belews Creek in Stokes County northwest of Greensboro, the company reported such an “exceedance” of federal groundwater standards for mercury. It had previously reported similar groundwater overages there for arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lithium and two forms of radium.

Such public acknowledgements are required under federal law whenever groundwater testing near a coal ash pond shows that a chemical contaminant has increased above a safety threshold administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Young said the data Duke Energy reported most recently was “generally consistent” with what the utility has been submitting under a state law that is stricter overall than the federal “Coal Combustion Residuals” rule that triggered the company’s filings.

Duke Energy is governed by both the EPA’s federal standards and the state Coal Ash Management Act, Young said, adding that North Carolina’s so-called CAMA requirements are “typically more stringent” than corresponding federal guidelines.

Southern Environmental Law Center lawyer Frank Holleman said that the environmental group had not overreacted to the federal filings by Duke Energy, noting that these standards were “put in place to require notification of the extent of pollution of the environment by coal ash pits across the country.”

“The rule sets national standards and testing requirements, apart from requirements set by the states,” the senior SELC attorney said Wednesday. “These recent required filings inform the public that additional toxic groundwater pollution has entered the environment from these Duke Energy sites.”

But Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton depicted the situation as emblematic of a “concerted effort by environmental groups to mislead the public.”

“They consistently omit the fact that the impact shown in these CCR reports is to groundwater right under or beside our ash basins, as they’re well aware,” Norton said, using the acronym for the federal “Coal Combustion Residuals” program.

Extensive testing of groundwater, lakes and streams by a variety of experts has shown repeatedly that “drinking and recreational water supplies remain safe from coal ash impacts,” Norton said.

The state coal ash law requires Duke Energy to safely close by 2030 all of its coal ash storage basins at Belews Creek and 13 other current or former coal-fired plants statewide. That includes cleaning up the groundwater.

Over the years, the utility has amassed millions of tons of coal ash submerged in basins throughout North Carolina. The basins were developed in the days when coal-fired power was in vogue and initially were seen as a safe way to sequester a pollutant that was more of an airborne threat to human health.

State lawmakers adopted the Coal Ash Management Act in the aftermath of a major coal ash spill from a storage basin at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden in February 2014.

The relationship between state DEQ and Duke Energy is one of regulator to supervised industry. The agency’s duties include overseeing the utility as it gathers scientific evidence and begins closing out its ash basins at 14 sites in North Carolina.

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Taft Wireback is a reporter for the Greensboro News and Record. Contact him at taft.wireback@greensboro.com or at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.