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MOUNT HOLLY, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Researchers found that coal ash pollution in some North Carolina lake sediments is more widespread than they first thought.

One of the five lakes studied is Mountain Island Lake, a drinking water source for the Charlotte area.

The Catawba Riverkeeper says people need not be concerned about drinking water because it is monitored and treated. Still, we will likely see some lasting impacts because the Riverkeeper says the study proves that coal ash is probably here to stay.

During Hurricane Florence in 2018, the Cape Fear River overflowed the banks at Lake Sutton near Wilmington, spilling coal ash.

“We recognized that there have been cases where there’s been high discharge related to hurricanes or storms,” said Dr. Ellen Cowan, a professor of Geology at Appalachian State University.

That gave researchers at Appalachian State and Duke Universities the idea to investigate whether they could detect coal ash within lake sediments, including Mountain Island Lake, a source of drinking water for Charlotte.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that there is ash in the lake,” said Brandon Jones, the Catawba Riverkeeper.

At Mountain Island Lake, the Riverbend plant that once produced power by burning coal has been demolished, and the coal ash, which is the by-product that contains metals that can be hazardous and once sat in ponds nearby, has been removed.

However, in the newly-released study, scientists found coal ash in sediment from Mountain Island Lake after that removal.

“We can see the amount of ash released into the lake diminishing to the present-day, so that’s the result then of changing the storage method from wet coal ash in ponds that are near the waterways to a dry-ash landfill,” said Dr. Cowan.

“The Catawba Riverkeeper says the drinking water is safe because it’s monitored heavily and treated,” said Jones. “But the presence of coal ash will likely leave lasting impacts on the lake, such as fish advisories, telling people not to eat certain fish.”

The Catawba Riverkeeper says more studies are needed to determine the direct impact of coal ash on aquatic life in the lake.

“The things that we are really concerned about in coal ash are those naturally occurring heavy metals, the elements like lead, selenium, cobalt, arsenic, these things don’t break down, they’re not going to go anywhere, they’re not going to evaporate, and at these concentrations, they can be hazardous,” said Jones.

Duke Energy owned the now-demolished Riverbend plant that produced the coal and coal ash near Mountain Island Lake years ago.

Spokesperson Bill Norton with Duke Energy tells Queen City News:

  • The study does not demonstrate any risk to people or wildlife, reinforcing what we’ve long known – water supplies are well-protected from coal ash impacts.
  • Regular tests of surface waters in lakes and streams adjacent to our plants shows water quality remains safe, including in Mountain Island Lake. Water providers around those lakes also confirm water supplies are safe, as shown by thousands of tests annually.
  • Extensive scientific monitoring has been underway for decades, allowing Duke Energy, governmental agencies, and other stakeholders to confirm that environmental conditions remain healthy for aquatic life and human use.
  • We’ve already retired two-thirds of our Carolinas coal plants, including Riverbend. And most of the extremely small amount of ash found by the researchers occurred prior to the extensive air quality controls that have been in place for decades at our remaining coal plants, so customers will remain protected as we continue our transition to cleaner energy.
  • As far as our retired Riverbend facility, we completed its ash basin excavation in early 2019, and extensive testing shows the groundwater continues to improve.