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EPA Report Shows Catawba River Threatened by Coal Ash Waste

EPA Report Shows Catawba River Threatened by Coal Ash Waste

Coal ash from power plants is being accumulated in ponds along the Catawba River. According to the EPA, four of ash ponds that pose the highest hazard are along the Catawba River.

Riverbend Steam Station Ash PondOn June 29, 2009 Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF) received word that the two ash ponds operated by Duke Power at the Riverbend Steam Station are on the EPA’s “List of 44 High Hazard Potential Units.[i]” This news is of particular concern because the two ash ponds at Riverbend Steam Station are adjacent to and discharge into Mountain Island Lake, which is the primary source of drinking water for approximately 750,000 people in Charlotte, Gastonia, Pineville, Mt. Holly and Belmont.Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities alone draws approximately 113 million gallons per day from the Catawba River.  Amazingly, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has not been willing to produce a contingency plan to deal with the potential contamination of Mountain Island Lake in the event of a coal ash release of the type that recently happened in Tennessee. 

The EPA’s list of 44 High Hazard Ash Ponds also includes ash ponds on Lake Wyle and Lake Norman.  Lake Wylie is a source of drinking water for Belmont, Rock Hill, and Ft. Mill.  Lake Norman is a source of drinking water for Huntersville, eastern Lincoln County, Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius, and the northern portion Charlotte.  Many other towns withdraw water downstream from these locations.  In total, approximately 1.5 million people depend upon the Catawba River for some portion of their drinking water.

“The alarm is sounding!” says Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman. “Duke Energy and the Federal government can’t hide the fact that hazardous coal ash waste lurks directly adjacent to the Catawba River, the primary drinking water supply for our entire region. We deserve appropriate action and conclusive assurance that hazardous coal ash waste along the Catawba River, at Lakes Norman, Mountain Island and Wylie, does not place the safety of nearly 2 million people’s drinking water at direct, immediate risk. North Carolina residents downstream from this hazardous waste in East Lincoln County, Iredell County, Gaston County, and Mecklenburg County as well as York County, South Carolinians need adequate safeguards.”

Coal ash is “a slurry of fly and bottom ash produced by burning coal for power production” according to the US Department of Transportation. It goes by many different names including: Coal Combustion Waste (CCW), Coal Combustion Products (CCP), and Coal Combustion Residue (CCR). Coal ash is dangerous! It contains in concentrated forms heavy metal elements such as arsenic, selenium, lead, and thallium.

The release of coal ash waste into the Catawba River could cause a catastrophe far greater in magnitude than the December 2008 disaster at the TVA Kingston ash pond in Tennessee. At that event 525 million gallons of Kingston Tennessee ash releasecoal ash were released (5.4 million cubic yards) when the earthen dam holding the coal ash in place failed. This destroyed 3 homes, damaged 23 more and a devasted entire fish populations in the Tennessee River. River water near the spill site was found to have excess amounts of lead and thallium, both of which cause birth or reproductive defects. A TVA representative was interviewed by the New York Times and stated that there shouldn’t be any danger to humans unless the ash was ingested, but did not address what would happen if the ash dried out and was breathed into the body.[ii]  However, a report issued by the USGS stated that “Radioactive elements from coal and fly ash may come in contact with the general public when they are dispersed in air and water or are included in commercial products that contain fly ash.[iii]

“A spill of coal ash from any one of the three Duke Coal plants along the Catawba could compromise the River for months, if not years. The safety and prosperity of millions throughout the Carolinas depend on the Catawba; we have no option but to make sure it is fully protected from this hazardous waste,” states Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman.

Potential Impacts and Current Data

The transport of heavy metals, etc. into the surface water via the effluent from the dikes could lead to increased levels of dangerous materials in our drinking water. Leaching from our current unlined surface impoundments could be entering our groundwater, surface water, and sediments in the area, presenting threats to human residents, recreational fishermen, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, the aquatic community, and soil invertebrates.

A risk assessment model done for the EPA showed that “humans exposed via the groundwater to drinking water pathway” had health risks related to arsenic and thallium contamination. In addition, boron, lead, cadmium, cobalt and molybdenum have Hazard Quotients of 3-4 within the 90th percentile. Humans exposed via fish consumption were subject to 90th percentile risks if near an unlined surface impoundment vii. “I constantly warn fisherman of the risk of consuming fish caught near the ash pond effluent streams at Riverbend into Mtn. Island Lake, Plant Allen into Lake Wylie, and Marshall into Lake Norman,” states Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman

Contingency Plans

Should there be a catastrophic failure of the ash pond into the Catawba River, disrupting indefinitely the ability of these utilities to pump water from the reservoirs along the Catawba River, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has said that they do have a contingency plan in place. They were not willing to discuss specifics, but instead stated that there were other reservoirs and redundancy stations, and that they maintained close communication with Duke Energy[iv]. The other site for pumping water is currently the Lee S. Dukes Jr. Water Treatment Plant, which gets its water from Lake Norman. Charlotte uses an average of 113 million gallons of water per day (MGD). The CMU Water intake on Mtn Island Lake Lee S. Dukes Jr. facility, according to the latest figures, can only treat 25 million gallons per day, though it plans to expand so that it is able to treat 108 MGD.  Publicly available records indicate that CMU has a water storage capacity of approximately 350 million gallons, which provides about a 3-day reserve of water.

Gastonia Utilities, which also gets it’s water supply from Mountain Island Lake has a more specific contingency plan; they have an alternate pumping station on the South Fork of the Catawba, and a week’s worth of raw water stored at a water treatment facility specifically for this type of emergency[v].

Long Term Consequences of Ash Release

The EPA did the most comprehensive study into the long-term effects of unlined coal ash storage in the late 1990’s in Oak Ridge Tennessee[vi]. The site at Oak Ridge Reservation is a coal ash pond site, which was operational for 12 years from 1955 to 1967. In 1967 it was filled, but slurry was allowed to run over it into a nearby creek for 22 years until the slurry was redirected by pipe in 1989 to a nearby quarry. The area is now well vegetated, but the presence of coal ash has resulted in a variety of negative environmental impacts.

 Coal ash is toxic to soil invertebrates, and heavy metal concentrations in sediments and surface water enough to inhibit reproduction in benthic macro-invertebrates. Tissue analysis of the vegetation indicates high concentrations of heavy metals selenium and arsenic. Local wildlife drinks the surface water, and deer eat the ash itself as a nutritional supplement, ingesting these toxins.

In addition to effects on the environment, the EPA analyzed what effect the presence of the coal ash would have on humans in the area. Based on calculations,  EPA reports that a human residing on the property for 2 weeks a year for 30 years (a hunter using the site) would stay within acceptable risk levels. However, a person living at the site 350 days a year for 30 years would be exposed to an unacceptable cancer risk due to radiation from 228Th, in addition to unacceptable hazard indices for ingestion of arsenic and magnesium via surface water, and unacceptable levels of mercury and cadmium in any homegrown produce that would be ingested.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman cautions that, “Charlotte and several other regional water providers remain centered in an unknown, vulnerable and fragile situation.”  The 1.5 million people who are dependent upon the Catawba River for drinking water appear to be vulnerable to both the effects of a catastrophic failure of the one of the ash pond dams and the cumulative effects of daily discharges to the Catawba River from the ash ponds.


Click here for additional information and resources about coal ash

[i] “Fact Sheet: Coal Combustion Residues (CCR) Surface Impoundments with High Hazard Potential Ratings” EPA530-F-09-006 June 29, 2009.

[ii] Dewan, Shaila “Tennessee Ash Flood Larger than Initial Estimate” The New York Times December 27, 2008

[iii] USGS Fact Sheet “Radioactivity in Coal Ash” October, 1997

[iv] Telephone conversation with Barry Gullet Deputy Director of Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities June 16 2009

[v] Telephone conversation with Ed Cross Division Manager of Water Treatment June 19, 2009

[vi] “EPA Superfund Record of Decision: Oak Ridge Reservation (USDOE)” EPA February 21, 1996

vii “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes” US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste Prepared by: RTI August 6, 2007.


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