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Duke Energy and the industry dispute misleading groundwater report

Recently, environmental groups released a report alleging widespread contamination from coal ash basins.

Duke Energy’s perspective

Despite how some may try to characterize the information, there is nothing new for Duke Energy, where we’ve been transparently reporting groundwater information from our plants for years and we’re closing all our coal ash basins. The only thing new is how some critics have repackaged the data to try to mislead the public.

The report acknowledges that the groundwater data alone does not prove that drinking-water supplies near these facilities have been contaminated. Very importantly, the report does not present such evidence. Drinking and recreational water supplies around our facilities remain safe from coal ash impacts, and our modeling shows they’ll continue to be safe in the future.

Among other things, the report inaccurately states that “Duke cannot restore local groundwater and surface water quality unless it excavates the ash and moves it to lined, dry storage, elevated above groundwater and away from the river.” This is not true and not supported by the science. Our basin closure plans are followed by a corrective action plan to address groundwater impacts. EPA acknowledges that capping, followed by corrective action plans, can safely address these impacts. The impacts to groundwater on plant property in North Carolina are anticipated in, and will be addressed by, our closure plans and corrective action plans.

Specific to the report’s reference to our Allen plant, the highest cobalt exceedances are at two monitoring wells deep within the interior of the Allen Steam Station site, flowing away from plant neighbors. Separate private well testing by state regulators in North Carolina did not observe elevated levels of cobalt in neighbors’ well water near the Allen plant from coal ash, and recent surface water sampling along Lake Wylie shows no ash basin impacts to surface water. No known studies show any link between exposure to coal ash and thyroid effects.

Industry perspective

The power company groundwater data shows the federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule is working. The electric power industry is committed to complying with all environmental regulations, responsibly managing costs for customers, and minimizing environmental impacts to the communities that they serve.

In compliance with federal regulations addressing the management of coal combustion residuals (CCR) – the solid wastes produced from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants – energy companies recently published reports on the results of the groundwater monitoring that is required at coal ash disposal basins. Now we have an opportunity to discuss what the groundwater data actually say.

To start, the data posted by the electric power industry is a clear and public demonstration that companies are complying with the federal CCR regulations that were developed by the Obama administration.

The CCR rule is designed to protect human health and the environment by establishing a comprehensive set of requirements for the safe disposal of coal ash. The rule lays out a prescriptive, phased process for monitoring groundwater, identifying and reporting any concerns, and then addressing any issues through corrective action. In accordance with the rule, groundwater monitoring reports are posted to a publicly available website.

The first step in the groundwater monitoring process is to gather groundwater quality data around coal ash disposal facilities and to establish background concentrations that show the naturally occurring groundwater quality.

The next step in the process is “detection monitoring” – determining whether a disposal unit may be having an impact by gathering groundwater samples that are compared with the background concentrations. If the data show that the CCR disposal unit may be having an impact, the next stage in the process is to initiate “assessment monitoring” to determine whether there is an impact on groundwater quality.

Groundwater monitoring data are analyzed using statistical methods to determine whether there is a statistically significant increase over background concentrations, and whether any concentrations exceed groundwater protection standards. The CCR regulations establish groundwater protection standards and identify acceptable statistical methods used to evaluate the data.

The raw data in the reports cannot by itself be relied on to determine whether the unit is in fact impacting groundwater. A simple averaging of sample data or using groundwater standards different than those mandated in the CCR regulations, as is done by groups alleging widespread contamination, is not the type of rigorous analysis mandated by the rule, and this leads to conclusions that are simply not true.

It is important to note that even if the required monitoring finds groundwater impacts in the shallow groundwater immediately next to a disposal unit on power plant property, this does not necessarily mean that neighbors’ drinking water is affected or that a health risk exists.

The next step required in the process is to characterize the nature and extent of any release from the CCR disposal unit, and then to evaluate any off-site groundwater impacts. Companies are also required to contact any property owners potentially affected by the release of CCR from the coal ash basin.

An assessment of the potential corrective action measures must then be conducted, and a remedy that protects human health and the environment, cleans up previous releases, and controls further releases must be selected and implemented. Prior to selection of the final remedy, a public meeting must be held for interested parties, ensuring public input and a transparent selection process for remediation activities.

In short, the CCR rule is working. The data that are in these groundwater monitoring reports are only from the initial stages of groundwater monitoring under the CCR rule and should not be interpreted to mean that the groundwater poses a health risk. That determination is made following a statistical evaluation of the data to determine whether any risk exists. If there are impacts to groundwater, rest assured that corrective measures will continue until groundwater protection standards are met and affected areas are cleaned up.

Jim Roewer is the Executive Director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group

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