SELC op-ed: Duke Energy doesn’t want you to know the truth about Sutton Lake

Aerial photos document the scale of flooding at Duke Energy's Sutton plant, where millions of tons of toxic coal ash is stored, following heavy rains associated with Hurricane Florence in September 2018.  (© North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality)
After Duke University scientists announced that Duke Energy has repeatedly polluted Sutton Lake near Wilmington with its coal ash, it responded with a misleading statement calling Sutton Lake “a manmade wastewater facility.” This statement is wrong, and Duke Energy knows better. Derb Carter, Director of SELC’s North Carolina offices, recently penned a piece for the Wilmington Star-News that lays out the facts. Sutton Lake is a public water fully protected by the Clean Water Act—as a federal court ruled in a case we brought against Duke Energy on behalf of on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance to protect the popular fishing and recreation spot.  
Read an excerpt of the article below. The full text is available here.

Duke University scientists recently released a study showing that Duke Energy has, for years, polluted Wilmington’s Sutton Lake with coal ash. Responding to its latest coal ash scandal, Duke Energy’s public statements have demeaned Sutton Lake by calling it Duke Energy’s coal ash “wastewater facility” and have claimed that Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution has not hurt the lake or its fish.

These claims are not true. In fact, Sutton Lake has always been a public fishing lake and protected water--not a wastewater facility for Duke’s pollution. Sutton Lake is an important fishing lake that hosts regional fishing tournaments, and many people rely on it to feed their families. Unfortunately, Duke Energy for years illegally dumped raw coal ash pollution into the lake, producing the harm that scientists found. Here are the facts.

The truth is that Sutton Lake is a valuable public water resource that Duke Energy seriously polluted for years.”

—Derb Carter, Director of SELC's North Carolina Offices

In the 1970s, legislation and an easement signed by the governor allowed the utility to dam public waters to build Sutton Lake, but on the express condition that Sutton Lake be managed as a public fishery. Duke Energy was allowed to use the lake to cool heated water from its power plant, but it was not authorized to use Sutton Lake as a place to dump coal ash pollution.

In violation of these requirements and the national Clean Water Act, Duke Energy discharged raw coal ash pollution directly into Sutton Lake. For years, the state environmental agency let Duke Energy get away with it.

To stop the damage to Sutton Lake, in 2013 on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance, we brought a Clean Water Act enforcement action in federal court against Duke Energy’s pollution of Sutton Lake.

The United States District Court ruled that Sutton Lake is – and always has been- a public water of the United States protected by clean water laws.

In another state enforcement action, the court ordered Duke Energy to excavate all the coal ash from its unlined pits beside Sutton Lake. In 2015, Duke Energy’s North Carolina companies pleaded guilty 18 times to federal coal ash crimes committed across North Carolina, and Duke Energy’s plea agreement requires it to remove its coal ash from the unlined pits at Sutton. But because Duke Energy made the irresponsible choice to dump coal ash in waterfront pits and delayed removing its coal ash, Hurricane Florence flushed coal ash from the pits into Sutton Lake and the Cape Fear River in 2018.

And the fish in the lake? Duke Energy’s coal ash has polluted the lake’s sediments with selenium, which is harmful to fish. In a 2013 study, Dr. Dennis Lemly concluded that fish in Sutton Lake were being poisoned by selenium, found deformed fish, and determined that tens of thousands of fish were killed every year by the pollution.

The truth is that Sutton Lake is a valuable public water resource that Duke Energy seriously polluted for years. Sutton Lake has more protection today than it has had in decades, but that is because Duke Energy was dragged through the courts to force it to stop polluting the lake.

This year, North Carolina directed Duke Energy to remove its coal ash from leaking pits on lakes and rivers at six other sites, including pits beside Lakes Norman and Wylie; Belews, Mayo, and Hyco Lakes; and the Broad River – but, as it did at Sutton, Duke Energy is litigating to try to avoid cleaning up these polluting sites.

It is time that Duke Energy started telling the people of North Carolina the truth about its coal ash, stopped hiring lawyers and lobbyists to fight the public, and got about the business of cleaning up its coal ash mess in every North Carolina community.

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