Catawba River is still endangered, group says

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comApril 17, 2013 

— The Catawba River has been named for a third time to an endangered-rivers list, this time for the millions of tons of coal ash held in open lagoons along its banks.

The No. 5 ranking by the advocacy group American Rivers touched off a pointed exchange Tuesday over the safety of Duke Energy’s ash, which holds potentially toxic elements.

A key question for Charlotte is what Duke will do with the 2.7 million tons of ash stored at its Riverbend power plant, west of the city, which shut down April 1. Riverbend’s lagoons perch above Mountain Island Lake, the water supply for 860,000 people.

A Duke University scientist and Mecklenburg County water officials, have detected arsenic – a constituent of ash – in the lake near Riverbend. Arsenic has not been found in fish, and local officials say it doesn’t appear to jeopardize drinking water.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation has also found contaminated seepage into the lake from the earthen dams that contain the ash and suggests the dams are eroding.

Duke says its ash dams are safe and regularly inspected, and that the seepage the Riverkeeper has pointed out is normal. The seepage has no impact on water quality, it says, and trace metals such as arsenic are barely detectable in Catawba reservoirs a “short distance” from Duke’s plants.

“It’s disappointing that American Rivers and its partners continue to bait the public and play on emotions to further their own agenda,” Duke said in a statement. “This does nothing to serve the Catawba River.”

The Riverkeeper Foundation says most towns along the river have no backup water supplies, making it “important for the public and public officials to be informed about the threats to the Catawba River.”

The foundation points out that fish consumption advisories due to mercury and PCB contamination have been issued on every Catawba reservoir on which Duke has an ash lagoon. While mercury may be found in ash, it’s such a common contaminant that North Carolina has issued a statewide advisory for it in largemouth bass. The toxic chemicals called PCBs are also widespread pollutants.

“If Duke Energy’s data shows that water quality along the Catawba River is good and fish are healthy, their data is inconsistent with data from other sources,” the foundation said in a response to the utility.

In a lawsuit settlement last year with the foundation, S.C. Electric & Gas agreed to remove and place in a landfill all coal ash from the lagoons at its Wateree power plant near Columbia.

The Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, a coalition of municipal water agencies and Duke, took a neutral view. The coalition says it is focusing on several water supply and conservation studies.

“The Catawba is a hard-working river serving many users in many ways,” said chair Barry Gullet, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department. “The (group) is interested in being sure that all of those uses, including coal ash ponds, are managed in ways that protect and respect the integrity of the river and lake system.”

American Rivers first listed the Catawba as endangered in 2001, and again in 2008. Water quality and growth pressures were cited for the 225-mile river’s rating in both years.

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