Over the last year, environmental groups have tried three times to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clear out leaky coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured last week, spewing enough toxic sludge into a North Carolina river to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools. Each time, they say, their efforts have been stymied -- by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The state agency has blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the federal act to take enforcement action. After negotiating with Duke, the state proposed settlements where the nation's largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds.
While poring over regulatory documents for Duke Energy coal ash ponds, environmentalists at the Waterkeeper Alliance grew suspicious of the way the giant utility was handling the toxic ash waste left over from burning coal. They decided to send up a team in an aircraft to photograph Duke's shuttered Cape Fear coal-burning power plant and ash ponds, tucked into piney woods in this tiny community in central North Carolina. The photos revealed what the Waterkeeper Alliance says is evidence that Duke, the nation's largest electric utility, is deliberately pumping toxic coal ash wastewater from the containment ponds into a canal that eventually feeds into the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for downstream cities. In the photos, two portable pumps and hoses can be seen drawing water from a coal ash pond and dumping into the canal and into nearby woods. According to the environmental group, that is a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act and state laws.