06/17/14 — Coal ash seepage reported at Lee plant

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Coal ash seepage reported at Lee plant

By Ethan Smith
Published in News on June 17, 2014 1:46 PM

There's something in the water. Arsenic, boron, iron, lead and manganese, to be exact.

Contaminants from the coal ash pond at the H.F. Lee power plant on Old Smithfield Road have been shown to be seeping into the groundwater surrounding the plant, according to data provided by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The coal ash basins at the site contain 4.9 million tons of ash, hold over 645 million gallons and span 314 acres, according to figures provided by Duke Energy. Recent samples taken by the state from the monitoring wells surrounding the plant showed spikes in arsenic, lead, iron, manganese and boron in the groundwater supply, while samples taken by Duke Energy only showed elevations of iron, manganese and boron.

Despite these readings, both Jeff Brooks, a spokesperson for Duke Energy and Karen Brashear, public utilities director for the city of Goldsboro, said there had been no detection of contamination in the city's drinking water supply.

"I suppose the plant is far enough upstream from the drinking water supply so that it hasn't caused an issue," Brashear said. "If there ever was a problem, we could switch rivers or purchase groundwater from other systems."

Despite this, some are still concerned that there is contamination to begin with.

Kim Lewis, who lives on Friendly Drive within one mile of the power plant on Old Smithfield Road, protracted brain cancer after moving back to the area approximately 20 years ago. She said there has been no history of cancer within her family, and she believes the groundwater contamination caused her cancer.

"It's important to note that, unlike a river, groundwater flows slowly, and the levels we see very near the ash basins would not represent the water quality in private wells," Brooks said. "Our monitoring wells closest to neighbors have exceedances of iron and manganese only."

At Duke Energy's community event at Rosewood High School, Matthew Starr of the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation said it is important for people to be aware of the contamination that is happening and to attend events that give them the chance to converse with Duke Energy.

"It's not as obvious as a spill," Starr said. "But it is still contaminating the water supply, even if it isn't in your face."

The state sets the legal limit for amounts of arsenic in the groundwater supply at 10 micrograms per liter. Arsenic was detected to be at over 51 micrograms per liter in the most recent readings by the DENR. Lead was also detected to be over the legal limit of 15 micrograms per liter at nearly 17 micrograms per liter.

Brooks says that samples taken by Duke Energy indicate that those levels have since fallen back below the legal limit.

"I can say that we had an elevated level of arsenic at one monitoring well downgrade from the plant in November," Brooks said. "That sample has since returned below the state standard in our most recent samples. While elevated, the area where the sample was taken is downgrade from property owners and there are no concerns for groundwater or drinking water."

The data provided by the DENR indicates exceedingly high levels of iron and manganese in the groundwater supply, with one monitoring well measuring iron levels to be 100 times the legal limit at 30,000 micrograms, or 30 milligrams, per liter. Recommended daily intake of iron is set at 8 milligrams by the National Institute of Health. The lowest exceedence of iron was 428 micrograms per liter, which is just above the legal limit of 300 micrograms per liter. Out of 107 manganese measurements, only 14 were below the legal limit of 50 micrograms per liter. The lowest reading of manganese was approximately 7 micrograms per liter and the highest reading was over 3,000 micrograms per liter.

"The vast majority of groundwater exceedances in the immediate vicinity of the H.F. Lee ash basins are for iron and manganese, which are naturally occurring and pose no health risk," Brooks said. "We've seen exceedances in some monitoring wells for other constituents that fluctuate, though those wells are down gradient from the ash basins where the groundwater is flowing away from neighbors who are uphill."

The H.F. Lee plant steam units are scheduled to be demolished, and the demolition should be complete within the next three weeks, Brooks said. The challenge after the demolition is to appropriately dispose of the coal ash pond so restoration of the land the plant was built on can begin. According to Danny Wimberly of Duke Energy, plans had already been presented to the state, but the state wished to revisit the plans before they are finalized.