State environmental regulators said Thursday that they have cited Duke Energy for violating the conditions of a wastewater permit.
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Duke Energy pumped an estimated 61 million gallons of wastewater from two coal ash impoundments at the company's Cape Fear Steam Electric Plant to a tributary of the Cape Fear River.
An environmental group called Waterkeeper Alliance had provided WNCN with photographs that appeared to show Duke Energy crews pumping water from coal ash ponds into streams that led into the Cape Fear River. WNCN reported that information Sunday. DENR officials told WNCN then that its inspectors had discovered the pumping last week. The agency couldn't say at the time if the visit was prompted by the photos or not.
Duke Energy said Sunday the crews were simply doing routine maintenance to lower water levels.
"The pumps in question are temporary installations used to lower the water level in the ash basin in order to perform maintenance on equipment in the basin," said spokesman Jeff Brooks. "This maintenance activity is allowed under our permits and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is aware that this work is occurring."
But on Thursday, DENR issued Duke Energy a notice of violation for the permit violations after saying state officials discovered during a March 11 inspection.
The pumps and attached hoses were set up in the ash impoundments, DENR said, but were not operating when state officials visited the plant last week. The pumping equipment has since been removed.
DENR said the March 11 visit to the Cape Fear plant was part of its inspections of all Duke Energy's facilities with coal ash impoundments after a Feb. 2 coal ash spill at the Dan River plant.
DENR said Duke Energy is allowed to discharge treated wastewater from the ash ponds into the canal through vertical spillway pipes, known as risers. The coal ash impoundments and risers at the Cape Fear plant provide physical treatment that allows heavier, more concentrated ash residuals to settle to the bottom of the impoundments over time. But DENR said its investigation revealed that the pumping activities bypassed the riser structures and accelerated the drawing down of the impoundments so much that the impoundments no longer properly function as treatment systems.
"We were notified by phone in August that Duke Energy intended to conduct routine maintenance work at these ash ponds," said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. "The state's investigation revealed that the pumping activities on-going at this plant far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance."
Coal ash is produced when coal is burned to generate electricity.
DENR, in its news release, said that as much as 61 million gallons of wastewater was pumped from two coal ash impoundments constructed in 1978 and 1985 into the on-site canal that empties into an unnamed tributary and eventually into the Cape Fear River.
By law, DENR said, the state agency can issue civil penalties for violations of state environmental laws but is required to give the company time to respond to the notice of violation. DENR requested that Duke Energy provide the state with a written response within 30 days of the notice of violation.
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