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Groundwater Radiation at Duke Energy Coal Plants Raises Concerns

Recently released data from Duke Energy is raising new concerns about contaminated water at the Asheville coal plant and others around the state.  BPR’s Jeremy Loeb reports groundwater at the Asheville plant had levels of radioactivity 38 times the federal safety standard.

Full interview with Avner Vengosh, Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality
Full interview with Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan
Full interview with French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson

High levels of radium were found at 11 out of 18 Duke Energy plants in the state.  The highest levels were at the Lake Julian plant in Asheville.  Hartwell Carson is the French Broad Riverkeeper.

Hartwell Carson: “We’ve known for a long time that burying toxic coal ash in unlined holes in the ground next to our waterways is a bad idea.  I mean we’ve been sounding the alarm on this issue for many, many years now.”

The data is from Duke Energy itself, which is complying with an EPA monitoring rule.  Environmental groups found and highlighted the radiation data.  And as Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan notes, it’s a measurement of groundwater immediately next to the coal ash basin.

Paige Sheehan: “There are not private wells there.  There are not people there.  And we’ve been very transparent about noting that underneath an earthen impoundment, you will have some impact to groundwater.  Drinking water supplies are perfectly safe”

Avner Vengosh: “To say it’s not a risk, I would disagree with that, because they need to have the proof to show that this contaminated groundwater has not migrated further from the coal ash pond area towards the drinking water well.”

That’s Avner Vengosh.  He’s a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University.  He says he doesn’t think people should be indifferent to the possibility that the contaminated water is migrating.

Vengosh: “They’re not going to stay there, they’re going to continue to flow.  It’s not a closed system.  It’s an open system.  For people living next to coal ash ponds, there is a potential of this contaminated groundwater to flow towards drinking water wells.  So we have now a potential of groundwater flow.  It could take decades, it could take years, it could be tomorrow when those contaminated groundwater would arrive in drinking water wells.”

And Vengosh knows what he’s talking about.  He’s studied coal ash ponds before to measure leakage, all of them in the state.

Vengosh:  “Every place we analyzed, and that includes all sites in North Carolina, all of them are leaking, absolutely.”

And Vengosh notes that once the water is contaminated, it stays contaminated unless it’s cleaned up.  Radium isn’t something that’s going to biodegrade.  It’s basically permanent.  Scientists have linked consuming high amounts of radium to higher levels of cancer.

Vengosh:  “There’s no question, in terms of the scientific community, whether exposure to such drinking water would induce high human health risks.”

There are a handful of people who live near the Asheville plant.  Most of them are connected to the city’s drinking water.  So why is the Asheville plant showing the highest radiation levels?  I posed to the question to Sheehan, the Duke Energy spokeswoman.

Paige Sheehan: “Radium is naturally occurring and can show up in different levels, depending on the geology of the area.  It also does show up in coal ash.”

Vengosh: “That’s surprising because if Duke Energy is saying they expect to see water contamination from coal ash with high radiation, that’s a big story.  I mean, I’m sorry to be cynical but usually they don’t admit that.”

At least in this case, Duke Energy is acknowledging it.

Sheehan: “You would absolutely expect to see some levels of it. The next step is really for the scientists to understand how much of it is in the soil and the rocks in that region, and then how much of it comes from coal ash.”

Vengosh says the geology could be a factor, but probably just a small one.

Vengosh: “I have not seen that elevated level in natural-occurring setting in North Carolina. We have measured natural-occurring radium, in some cases exceeding the drinking water regulation, but the level of radium that we found was not similar to what was just revealed in those wells.  Much, much lower.”

So what does all this mean?  For Duke Energy, they say environmentalists are trying to push an agenda by pointing out a problem that’s already being addressed.

Sheehan: “We’re already closing the Asheville facility, the coal facility there.  The basins are well on their way to being closed and excavated with the material all being recycled, and as we de-water these basins and close these basins, we expect that that will also mitigate impacts to groundwater.”

Indeed the Lake Julian plant is being closed and replaced with a natural gas facility where coal ash won’t be an issue.  But as Vengosh says, the problem of contaminated water doesn’t just go away.  And Asheville is just one plant of many, as Hartwell Carson, the French Broad River keeper points out.

Carson: “The Cliffside Plant just down the road in Rutherford and Cleveland County that Duke’s refusing to do a full cleanup.  They’re refusing to dig the ash up and move it to a lined landfill, which we think is the right solution there.”

Carson says it’s lucky that Duke was pressured to clean up the Asheville plant.  He said it’s a good thing they learned of this data with mitigation already several years in progress, but it’s still not enough. 

Carson: “They’re continuing to burn coal.  They’re continuing to dump their ash in unlined landfills and so there’s still more work around the state that needs to be done.  A lot has been accomplished and there are a lot of these sites are being cleaned up, but there’s a good many that are still out there.”

***Note: Duke Energy is a business sponsor of BPR.***

Paige Sheehan sent the following background material in response to our interview request:

The Asheville plant is a great example of how we’re using science and engineering to develop customized closure plans that continue to protect the environment and people. And we’ve been able to recycle material to avoid permanent disposal. We have common ground with the River keepers in that we all want basins closed safely, but excavation is not always the best choice for basins. In some cases, basins should be drained and safely capped. That’s supported by federal and state regulations and we’re taking that customized approach across our fleet.  

Critic groups want all basins excavated and the material moved to a new location. Their extreme plan would burden North Carolina with the most extreme, most disruptive and most expensive option and it can do more harm to the environment than good.   That “one size fit all” approach is bad for customers, communities and the environment.

Very importantly, state and federal regulations favor what we’re doing, which is to use science, engineering and a customized approach to safely close each basin. Hundreds of basins across the nation are being closed using the same robust scientific process.

Specifically in response to their claims about groundwater, we’ve done extensive groundwater monitoring for the North Carolina coal ash law, and this testing is a separate effort required under the federal coal ash rule. When you combine the data we have from both programs, we have an enormous amount of information on groundwater at these facilities. All that is factored into how we plan to safely close ash basins and what additional measures are needed to protect groundwater in the process.

Additional background

·        The federal coal ash rule lays out a prescriptive process for monitoring groundwater, identifying and reporting data and then addressing any issues through corrective action. This is one step in the detailed process to safely close coal ash basins in ways that protect people and the environment.

·         The U.S. Geologic Survey notes the majority of fly ash is not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, and this does not represent a health concern for plant neighbors.

·         The groundwater monitoring wells in this report are located immediately next to the ash basin or landfill and do not reflect groundwater conditions farther away or off plant property where neighbors are located.  

·         The results from this initial monitoring stage simply mean that we must take the next steps under the federal rule’s groundwater program. That involves more testing, analyzing the data and identifying any corrective steps. Radium is naturally occurring and dependent on local geology, so the analysis will factor that in as well.

For more information, please see the USGS fact sheet about radioactivity in fly ash: "…Radioactive elements in coal and fly ash should not be sources of alarm. The vast majority of coal and the majority of fly ash are not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, or in associated radioactivity, compared to common soils or rocks."

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