Climate

‘Thick Orange Gooey Stuff’ With Arsenic, Lead Found In River Near Duke Energy Power Plant

CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Environmental groups on Thursday documented previously undisclosed seeps of orange waste contaminated with arsenic, lead, and selenium, purportedly coming from a power plant owned by Duke Energy in North Carolina.

Contaminated waste from a retired coal plant in Rowan County, North Carolina, has been found leaking into a tributary of the second largest river in the state, environmental groups charged on Thursday.

The groups Waterkeeper Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Yadkin Riverkeeper said they discovered extensive leaks of coal ash coming from Duke Energy’s Buck Power Plant flowing into High Rock Lake, a tributary of the Yadkin River. Though the power plant no longer actively burns coal, it is surrounded by ponds filled with more than six million tons of coal ash — a waste byproduct from coal-burning.

Pete Harrison, an attorney representing the groups, told ThinkProgress that the seep was initially discovered in mid-November, after reports of a quarter-mile long area of orange-colored streaks along the river bank. The groups took samples of the seep, and found that it contained high levels of pollutants such as arsenic, lead, and selenium, the groups said in a press release. Coal ash usually contains similar chemicals.

“The whole bank was just bleeding this thick orange gooey stuff,” he said.

Duke Energy stores coal ash in unlined pits (outlined in red) next to High Rock Lake, an impoundment of the Yadkin River. The two small points to the left represent where the environmental groups found high levels of many toxic heavy metals found in coal ash.

Duke Energy stores coal ash in unlined pits (outlined in red) next to High Rock Lake, an impoundment of the Yadkin River. The two small points to the left represent where the environmental groups found high levels of many toxic heavy metals found in coal ash.

CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Harrison said reason the orange seep had not been found or reported previously was because the area it was discovered in is normally underwater. But in October and November, the river’s water level had been lowered approximately 14 feet to accommodate for a state Department of Transportation project. That’s when the leaks became visible.

For Harrison, this indicated that there may be more unknown problems underwater stemming from the neighboring coal ash ponds.

“We’ve seen leaks on the water’s surface, but we’ve always had this concern about what’s happening underwater that we can’t see,” he said. “This indicates that there are these issues of water contamination, like [polluted] groundwater, that is entering the rivers right next to it, underwater, beneath the surface of the river.”

In October and November, the water in North Carolina's High Rock Lake was drawn down 14 feet below its normal level. That revealed a quarter-mile area of contaminated seepage.

In October and November, the water in North Carolina’s High Rock Lake was drawn down 14 feet below its normal level. That revealed a quarter-mile area of contaminated seepage.

CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Coal ash is the second most prevalent form of waste generated in the United States, but there are currently no federal regulations dictating how it should be disposed. One of the most common ways it is stored is in unlined, man-made ponds, like the next to the Yadkin river. Questions have been raised as to the safety of those ponds, particularly the one at Duke Energy’s Buck power plant, where surrounding residents say they have high rates of cancer because of ash-contaminated drinking water.

Duke Energy vigorously disputes those claims, as well as the claims made by the environmental groups on Thursday. In a statement to ThinkProgress, Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert insisted the Yadkin River was “well protected.” She said the company had extensively surveyed the Buck power plant, and only identified seeps with low levels of contaminants that would not affect the river.

Culbert also disputed that the orange color of the waste found near the Yadkin was indicative of anything harmful. “By the way,” she said, “the orange color is often caused by iron bacteria, a naturally-occurring and non-harmful bacteria that occur commonly in this area because of iron-rich soils.”

Duke Energy's Buck power plant.

Duke Energy’s Buck power plant.

CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Harrison pushed back on that claim, noting that while iron was found in the seep, so were other harmful chemicals often found in coal ash. Culbert did not respond to a second request for comment inquiring whether Duke disputed that the contamination came from its ash ponds.

Currently, Duke does not have a timeline for when it will close the ash ponds at the Buck station. Culbert said the company was “moving quickly to close all ash basins across the state,” of which it has 33. The closure of these 33 basins has been a point of controversy in the state since the February Dan River spill, which coated 70 miles of the waterway in more than 40,000 tons of Duke Energy’s coal ash.

The Environmental Protection Agency is slated to release its first-ever set of coal ash regulations on December 19.