Front Porch Blog

Clean Water News: Congress Backs Down, N.C. Steps Up

Thallium was once used as rat poison. Now DENR is suing Progress Energy for Thallium polluting the French Broad River from its Asheville power plant.

Last week, there was concern that the U.S. Senate budget resolution would end up containing measures to decrease funding for initiatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency such as the release of guidelines for coal ash disposal and rules to ensure states are following water quality standards. Thanks to good Americans like yourself speaking up, the Senate budget remained free of dirty water amendments.

While the budget resolution is non-binding, and the Senate Appropriations Committee decides how funding gets allocated later in the process, the resolution send a strong message regarding the Senate’s priorities. Unfortunately, one of the more controversial amendments that did pass was in support of building the Keystone XL pipeline.

While the Senate backed down on loading up the budget resolution with dirty water clauses, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources stepped and up and decided to take legal action against Progress Energy for the release of toxic heavy metals from their Asheville plant into the French Broad River. 

Western North Carolina Alliance, Sierra Club, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy had filed a notice of intent to sue Progress Energy for violating the Clean Water Act for unpermitted seeps into the French Broad River. It appears DENR took notice and is now taking up their own case against Progress Energy. DENR is seeking injunctive relief and demanding Progress Energy solve the issue in lieu of the state seeking monetary damages.

In the legal briefing, DENR highlighted particular concerns with the amount of the heavy metal thallium released into the water. While thallium can naturally occur in small quantities in soil, it can easily spread to groundwater when it is concentrated, as it tends to be in large coal ash pits. It was used as rat poison until it was banned in 1972 and can cause nervous system issues in humans. 

The lawsuit asks that the court to require Progress Energy to complete the following:

· a report to the Division of Water Quality’s director within 180 days assessing the cause, significance and extent of the discharges.

· a report to the division’s director within 180 days assessing the cause, significance and extent of thallium occurring at levels above groundwater standards. Thallium is released to the environment through coal-burning activities.

· an assessment of other groundwater constituents that have been monitored as occurring above the state standards to determine a comparison to natural background levels, and determine the source and cause of contamination. The assessment also would be used to determine the existence of any imminent hazards to public health and safety, the extent of the contamination and factors influencing the movement, chemical and physical characteristics of the contaminants.

This is great first step and we hope to see more from DENR in the future. All monitoring near coal ash ponds show some groundwater standards being exceeded. It remains uncertain how DENR will proceed both on this particular case and at the other coal ash locations across the state, however, with more budget cuts announced for the already under-funded agency. 

With Colombian roots, a Philadelphia, Pa.-childhood, and more than a decade in Florida before joining Appalachian Voices, Sandra served as AV's North Carolina campaign coordinator and driving force behind the Red, White & Water campaign from 2007 to 2013.


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