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Testing at the Belews Creek Steam Station near Stokesdale found potentially harmful levels of mercury in one test well.

Environmental activists and Duke Energy are at odds again over coal ash issues at Belews Creek Steam Station and several other coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.

At Belews Creek northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County, recent groundwater testing found the potentially harmful metal mercury above governmental safety levels in one test well.

The utility already had reported problem levels of six other pollutants linked to coal ash in previous groundwater tests at Belews Creek.

The utility also recently reported additional, potentially harmful chemicals in groundwater testing near coal ash storage basins at plants near Roxboro, Lumberton and Lake Norman in Catawba County.

“Duke Energy’s coal ash is injecting a witches brew of toxic pollutants into North Carolina’s waters,” said Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill that publicized the overages. “And now Duke Energy admits that the nasty flow is even worse than previously reported.”

But Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton countered that the findings were insignificant in groundwater that is confined to company property with zero likelihood of threatening nearby drinking water or anybody’s health.

The uproar is part of “an organized effort by critics using fear to advance an extreme agenda that would do more harm than good,” Norton said.

“This is highly localized water right next to our ash basins,” Norton said of the findings that drew SELC’s condemnation. “At the sites singled out by SELC, this groundwater moves only a few feet per year.

“We acknowledged this very limited impact years ago, and we committed to closing our (ash) basins as a result.”

Norton noted that at Belews Creek mercury had been found in groundwater taken from only one of 29 test wells, at a level that was .3 of a part-per-billion above groundwater limits. Mercury was not a problem in the other wells, he said.

At issue is the quality of groundwater near basins where coal ash traditionally has been stored submerged. Over time, the ash releases trace amounts of metals and other constituents that can be harmful to human health if they are consumed in sufficiently heavy concentrations.

Coal ash is not considered a hazardous waste by federal or state authorities. But like many other waste products, it includes chemicals that pose a threat if enough migrates into groundwater.

Federal and state laws require Duke Energy to monitor the groundwater near these storage basins and at various distances from each basin to make sure neighboring properties are not threatened while the basins are being closed under governmental supervision.

The utility also is required to file paperwork on its public website within 60 days of learning that a chemical has been found in one of its test wells at levels above federal groundwater protection standards.

“The groundwater protection standard for mercury at Belews is 2 parts per billion,” Norton said. “The mercury result in that one well was 2.3 parts per billion.”

Norton said that such results change from one “sampling event” to another, and it is quite possible that the next round of tests will find acceptable levels of mercury in the problem well.

He said that the well is located “on our property right at the northern edge of the ash basin.”

SELC has pursued a strategy of publicizing as “the first” every time one chemical or another exceeds reporting levels even by relatively small amounts, Norton said.

“The numbers always change a bit; that will happen with every filing for years to come,” he said of the utility’s required groundwater testing. “Now the number for one trace element — mercury — has changed at Belews Creek, so they’re saying we’re admitting it for ‘the first time.’ ”

“Next time there will be a different data point and they’ll trumpet ‘for the first time’ all over again.”

The state Department of Environmental Quality did not respond to an email Friday from the News & Record asking about the differing Duke-SELC perspectives and whether anybody’s drinking water is threatened.

In its recent news release, SELC highlighted Duke Energy’s reporting of additional chemicals contaminating groundwater at the Belews Creek, Roxboro and Marshall power plants because uncertainty remains about how ash basins at each of those sites will be closed out.

DEQ has ordered Duke Energy to do away with basins at each plant by removing their contents to a lined landfill. The utility is required by the state Coal Ash Management Act to safely close storage basins at all 14 of its active and former coal-fired plants in North Carolina within the next decade.

But the company would rather leave much of the ash at Belews Creek, Roxboro, Marshall and several other plants where its research indicates the remaining waste could be covered by impermeable caps that the company says would be just as protective as a lined landfill.

Norton said that the groundwater would be eliminated as a threat whatever closure method ultimately is used at Belews Creek and the other plants. But SELC has advocated for the landfill option as the safest and best way to protect the environment, a position DEQ also adopted.

Duke Energy has challenged DEQ’s recent landfill-only order in the state Office of Administrative Hearings, where a decision has yet to be reached.

In light of that appeal, Holleman suggested the utility’s disclosure of additional contaminants carried more weight.

“Duke Energy needs to stop fighting North Carolina’s government and start moving its toxic coal ash from these unlined, polluting pits to dry, lined storage out of our groundwater and away from our drinking supplies,” said Holleman, senior attorney at SELC.

In its news release, SELC noted that at the Roxboro plant Duke Energy recently reported that it had found too much of the additional contaminants lithium and two forms of radium in new groundwater samples. The utility also said it had found levels of the chemical barium at higher levels than permissible at the Marshall plant near Lake Norman.

The company had disclosed other contaminants over protective limits at each of these plants in previous groundwater reports.

SELC’s Holleman emphasized the potential effect not just on neighboring property owners’ groundwater but also on nearby rivers and smaller streams.

At Belews Creek, he said previous groundwater testing had found ash-related problems with arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lithium and two forms of radium.

Far from being insignificant, the mercury level found in the latest round of testing at Belews Creek was “over ten times the background level for mercury at the site ... showing that Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash pit every day is contaminating groundwater with mercury.”

“Groundwater moves toward the neighboring waterways, and Duke Energy’s coal ash sits on top of Little Belews Creek, which flows directly into the Dan River,” Holleman said.

Meanwhile, the most recent federally mandated study at Belews Creek came from experts working for the utility who reported that the ash basin affected groundwater only in the immediate vicinity of the ash pond.

“Groundwater effects are limited to Duke Energy property except for Parcel A,” according to the April 10 report that described the parcel as an undeveloped piece of land without a water-supply well.

The 71-page, “Assessment of Corrective Measures” describes steps being taken to prevent further migration of tainted groundwater at the Belews Creek site from reaching that adjoining parcel.

“Assessments indicate that affected groundwater from Belews Creek Steam Station does not reach any water supply wells, and modeling indicated this will remain the case,” consultants Ashley Albert and Craig Eady said in a report.

That limits the tainted groundwater’s potential impact to “nearby surface water bodies,” they said, adding that such groundwater discharges did not appear to cause problems for nearby Belews Reservoir or the Dan River.

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Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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