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Environmental groups: Arsenic in Neuse floodwater is 18 times the state standard

September 28, 2018

A photo from the Neuse Riverkeeper taken near the H.F. Lee plant Sept. 19.

Tests taken from floodwater standing atop coal ash basins at Duke Energy’s retired H.F. Lee Plant showed arsenic levels nearly 18 times higher than state standards for drinking water and fish consumption, environmental groups said Friday.

These buried coal ash pits outside the retired plant east of Goldsboro were inundated and eroded by the Neuse River during and after Hurricane Florence. The release produced a gray plume, putting not only arsenic, but also lead and other heavy metals into the river, the Neuse Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance said.

The groups released laboratory test results Friday from Pace Analytical of Asheville. Samples were taken Sept. 19 by Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, from a boat floating above the buried coal ash deposits near the river.

Duke Energy said its sampling at the Stevens Mill bridge downstream has consistently shown results within “all surface water standards that the state has established for protecting health and the environment.” The state Department of Environmental Quality said Friday afternoon that it’s continuing to take samples near H.F. Lee and that data it received Friday “will be released in the coming days after it has undergone thorough quality assurance and quality control.”

The city of Goldsboro has said its municipal water supply is safe to drink. It stopped taking in water from the Neuse last week, relying instead on a 35-million-gallon reservoir. It resumed using the river intake on Sept. 22, according to the Goldsboro News-Argus. The intake is downstream from the ash basins.

“With the volume of water flowing down the river, the location of our intake structure, and the precautions operations staff took, we do not believe that there has been any threat to our water quality,” city spokeswoman LaToya Henry said in an email Friday.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said that “test results from the river continue to show very little difference between the quality upstream of the H.F. Lee Plant and downstream of the plant.”

Starr accused the company of “hiding behind water samples they collected six miles downstream.”

“Our sample results, collected where the spill into the Neuse was happening, show that Duke could care less about reporting the truth and will continue to mislead the public until they are taken to task by Waterkeeper Alliance and Waterkeeper organizations,” Starr said in a statement. “The levels of arsenic that Duke has dumped into the Neuse through its continued mismanagement of its coal ash are alarming.”

The company accused Starr and others of pushing the panic button to gain ground in a long-running argument over what do do with coal ash.

Duke Energy wants to leave much of that ash in place outside retiring coal plants. Environmental groups want it excavated and moved away from the rivers and ponds the plants were built near. The Neuse Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance said Friday that all of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash basins in North Carolina are within a half mile of a lake or river.

Decisions should be made site-by-site, Duke Energy said. Moving everything “would burden North Carolinians with the most expensive, most disruptive plan that can do more harm to the environment than good,” the company said.

Duke Energy said the riverkeepers’ data was “irrelevant to drinking water safety.” Starr said the water he took samples from was not stagnant, but moving downstream. Photographs released by the state Department of Environmental Quality show a gray plume in the water near H.F. Lee and a gray muck left behind as floodwaters recede.

“These inactive ponds were underwater for days, actively eroding,” Starr said. “It just doesn’t go into the water and then magically fall out of it.”

In addition to the releases at H.F. Lee, a coal ash landfill at the Sutton Plant near Wilmington breached during the floods.

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