Men work at the L.V. Sutton Complex operated by Duke Energy in Wilmington, North Carolina on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Randall Hill)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke Energy's pumping of two coal-ash ponds for maintenance work at its Chatham County plant — discovered last week by environmentalists and regulators — illegally put 61 million gallons of wastewater into the Cape Fear River over the past several months.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Thursday notified the utility the pumping violated its wastewater permit, which subjects it to fines of up to $25,000 a day.
More bad news came from the closed Cape Fear Steam Station before the day was over: Late in the afternoon, Duke Energy reported finding a crack in the earthen dam on one of the site's coal ash lagoons. State dam safety inspectors headed to the plant Thursday evening, but said initial reports indicated it wasn't in imminent danger of failing.
Meanwhile, a Wake County Superior Court judge denied Duke Energy's request to postpone a ruling that would require the utility to immediately get rid of the toxins leaking from its coal ash plants in North Carolina.
DENR says it has notified downstream cities of the illegal discharge from the pumping into the Cape Fear River, but so far has not heard of any problems with water quality. The river provides drinking water for Sanford, Dunn, Fayetteville and other communities.
The 61 million gallons, pumped into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, is more than twice the size of the Feb. 2 Dan River spill, but it happened over several months instead of days, and it didn't include the 39,000 tons of coal-ash sludge that accompanied the disaster in Rockingham County.
The Cape Fear plant in Moncure, which is the coal-ash facility closest to the Triangle, operated for 89 years until it was closed in 2012. It has five lagoons where it stores the ash, which is a byproduct of coal burned for electricity, mixed with water.
On March 10, the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance flew a plane over the site and spotted two pumps at two of the ponds. The next day four inspectors from the state Division of Water Resources visited the plant as part of a week set aside to conduct in-depth inspections of all the state's coal ash sites, and found the pumps inactive.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy told The News & Observer on Monday that the company informed DENR in August that it would begin lowering water levels for maintenance that began last fall. On Thursday, DENR said a company official had called in August to inform it of the routine work.
But the pumping "far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance," Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, said in a statement announcing the violation.
The company had lowered the water level to work on risers, which are vertical spillway pipes. But workers bypassed the risers and diverted the wastewater into a canal, accelerating the draw-down of the water. That prevented the water from being treated as it came out too fast for the heavier ash to settle at the bottom of the pond.
An inspector was last at the plant in December and noticed parts of disconnected pumping equipment next to one of the ponds. A Duke employee told the inspector about the planned maintenance but didn't mention pumping had already been going on for months. Regulators have now inspected the company's pumping logs and found that one pond was periodically pumped during the last four months of 2013, and the other pond every month this year.
Duke Energy didn't comment on Thursday's developments. It has 30 days to respond to the notice of violation by answering detailed questions DENR submitted in writing.
Donna Lisenby from Waterkeepers Alliance said Thursday she was glad DENR charged the utility with violations, but she remains convinced environmentalists' monitoring of the Cape Fear plant is what prodded regulators to act.
"Duke thought no one would catch them or challenge them," Lisenby said. "Well, they didn't realize that Waterkeeper Alliance and the Cape Fear Riverkeeper were watching, and we aren't afraid to hold them accountable to the law."
The crack in the earthen dam at one of the ponds discovered on Thursday comes after Waterkeeper Alliance earlier this month pointed out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year rated the five lagoons' structures as "poor." DENR reported to the EPA in September that the dams were not in bad enough shape to warrant repairs.
No homes or roads are near the dam, which sits about 760 feet from a canal that eventually flows into the Cape Fear River.
Thursday night North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory stepped up his criticism of his former employer.
"This is the latest in a series of troubling incidents at Duke Energy facilities over the past few months, and it's time for Duke Energy to come out of the shadows and to publicly address this growing problem," McCrory said.
"Initial reports show that the dam does not appear to be in imminent danger of failure. We are going to continue to enforce the law and take appropriate action to address this situation. We need an explanation from Duke Energy as soon as possible — not only to us, but to the people of North Carolina."
(Staff writer John Murawski contributed.)
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