What’s the deal with radioactivity in groundwater near coal ash basins?

In 2015, the federal government released Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rules. With some overlap and some differences from individual state coal ash rules, Duke Energy and all other utilities nationwide were required to report on groundwater quality around coal ash basins. Data were due for public release on March 2, 2018. Marshall Steam Station’s water quality data report alone spans 2,192 pages. In total, Duke chose to release over 20,000 pages of data – without summary or tabulation. Individual groups, such as ourselves and partners EarthJustice and Waterkeeper Alliance, were left to pore over the full data set (available here).

At Marshall (Lake Norman), Duke reported high levels of thallium and radioactivity from radium isotopes (226 and 228) at several times drinking water quality standards. In recent years, Duke has reported other elements in exceedence of water quality standards. The data are from wells adjacent to the ash ponds (not drinking water wells), though this indicates more testing is needed. North Carolina’s 2014 Coal Ash Management Act required drinking water well testing of as much as one-half mile away from coal ash ponds. Those residents are now being connected to municipal water lines.

Should you be concerned?

We understand anyone drinking well water in Catawba County near Marshall might have concerns. Residents considering well testing should contact the Catawba County Environmental Health (828-465-8200) and DEQ (see below).

Cities monitor surface water-sourced municipal water for radioactivity from radium at different intervals (EPA requires at least every nine years). Recent tests by Charlotte Water, Mooresville and others have not experienced the unsafe levels at Marshall in the water they withdraw. However, Marshall has impacted drinking water in the recent past, namely in the discharge of bromides that caused the formation of trihalomethanes in treated water.

In summary, the radium/radioactivity story comes down to three points:

  • This is one more contaminant hyperconcentrated in water around the coal ash sites
  • It is a concern for anyone in the vicinity drinking from groundwater
  • This is another reason why we do NOT want to risk a failure of this material into the main reservoir/river.

What else can be done?

Removal to lined storage or recycling into concrete is a common sense, proven solution demonstrated by utilities in South Carolina. We are presently involved in litigation to secure real cleanups, as we did at Wateree (South Carolina below Lake Wateree) and Riverbend (Mountain Island Lake). To voice concerns, contact your elected officials – especially in the state legislatures. Questions and concerns can also be directed to DEQ:

Debra Watts, Groundwater Protection Branch Supervisor – (919) 807-6338, debra.watts@ncdenr.gov

The Office of Michael Regan, Secretary of NCDEQ – (919) 707-8600

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