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Government oversight remains 'grossly inadequate' in coal-ash waste control 

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Meanwhile, the N.C. General Assembly had taken another look at the state's coal-ash regulations. The ponds, most of which are held in place by engineered earthen dams near rivers and lakes, were once under the regulatory authority of the Department of Commerce and exempt from the Dam Safety Law of 1967. The Assembly changed that in July 2009, putting the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in charge. Under the DENR's watch, coal-ash ponds will now be inspected every two years, instead of every five. While environmental groups point out that groundwater monitoring isn't mandatory at most sites, the state has required Duke Energy to install new groundwater monitoring wells around Riverbend's ponds.

Back in 2000, the coal companies had struck a deal with the EPA, volunteering to monitor the groundwater surrounding coal-ash ponds if the EPA wouldn't regulate the industry. Eight years later, in the same month as the TVA disaster, Riverbend installed its first monitoring wells. But since the data collection was "voluntary," the state hasn't included that information — and won't — in any of its databases.

The original data indicated that the groundwater is contaminated near the Riverbend ponds. That's a concern because of its proximity to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities' drinking-water intake. The catch is that it is completely legal for Duke Energy to pollute water on its own property. "They don't have to meet groundwater standards until the contamination reaches the compliance boundary," said Debra Watts of the DENR's Aquifer Protection Agency. Until the state knows for sure that the ponds are contaminating Charlotte's drinking water — and until it is armed with definitive proof that any exceedances aren't blips — there's not much officials can do. "We just see our job as enforcing the rules," she said.

Watts gets defensive when questioned about the monitoring wells. "It's not like I'm saying we shouldn't have been doing this all along, or that this is a good thing," she said. Like everyone else, the state is bound by the law and is waiting on the EPA to figure out what to do.

Today, the DENR has three additional sets of data from groundwater monitoring at the plant. The new data indicates that the water is acidic and that levels of iron and manganese are consistently violated. Environmental advocate Merryman, the Catawba Riverkeeper who watchdogs our drinking water, has found that the water's acidification — its Ph — "can drastically affect how chemicals and metals react." Merryman has accompanied Duke University scientists to the reservoir and says they are now finding arsenic III and strontium, which can be radioactive, in Mountain Island Lake's sediment. It was the first time Merryman connected the elements to local coal ash, but the EPA has confirmed that "yes, these elements have been associated with coal ash in other locations."

The problem is that neither the county, the state nor the EPA runs tests on the lake's sediment. "You're completely missing the forest for the trees if you don't look at the sediment," said Merryman, "because that's where everything is accumulating. The state has effectively decided to put blinders on to what is happening."

Merryman's concern is that the lake, one of the smallest and shallowest of the Catawba River's 11 dammed reservoirs, doesn't get enough government attention, especially given that it is Charlotte's drinking water. Fortunately, he has not found dangerous elements in Charlotte's tap water. But he believes the state cannot ignore the problem for much longer. "I think when [Duke University's] report comes out, it could force the state to start paying attention to the sediment."

Duke Energy plans to stop burning coal at Riverbend between 2015 and 2018, although critics point out that the company previously said it would close the plant as early as this year. When it will be closed depends largely on what regulations the EPA enacts over the next few years.

Riverbend probably will not close for good, however. Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy public relations representative, said it could be converted into a natural-gas facility, or potentially be used to burn trees the state has designated for use as renewable energy. Whatever happens to the plant, the coal-ash ponds are there to stay, and they will be the first in North Carolina's history to be retired. Watts said the state will control the closure of the ponds, and Duke Energy has said it is prepared to comply, promising to monitor the wells for the foreseeable future no matter what happens regulation-wise.

That doesn't do much to ease the concerns of area citizens, many of whom weren't aware the ponds existed until the EPA released its list of 49 high-hazard coal-ash ponds the summer after the TVA spill. Duke Energy owns 10 of the 12 North Carolina-based ponds on the list, although the EPA later reclassified the two Riverbend ponds as "satisfactory." That means, essentially, that the grass-covered earthen dams that hold the ponds in place are structurally sound, but it does not take into account the tainted runoff that enters the Charlotte reservoir.

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