Press Release | July 1, 2014

Clean Water Act Violations from Coal Ash Noticed on Three North Carolina Rivers

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The Southern Environmental Law Center today gave notice to Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources that it plans to enforce the federal Clean Water Act to clean up coal ash pits on the Cape Fear, Neuse, and Yadkin Rivers.  The notices were filed on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Yadkin Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.  The notices address coal ash pollution and dam safety issues at Duke Energy’s Cape Fear plant (Cape Fear River), Lee plant (Neuse River), and Buck plant (Yadkin River).

“These coal ash lagoons threaten public drinking water supplies, flow illegally into rivers and groundwater, and have unsafe dams,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the citizens groups in court on violations at the Cape Fear and Lee facilities.  “Yet, Duke Energy has not cleaned up these sites, and DENR has not required Duke Energy to clean them up.”

These sites were included in state court enforcement actions filed by DENR in response to an earlier 60-Day notice under the Clean Water Act filed by SELC and conservation groups.  But DENR failed to include many of Duke Energy’s Clean Water Act violations.  DENR has not required a cleanup at these sites, and Duke Energy has not committed to clean them up.

“We will take action to protect the public and North Carolina’s water resources if Duke Energy and DENR will not clean up these sites,” said John Suttles, a senior attorney at SELC who represents the citizens groups in court on violations at the Buck facility. 

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a coal ash bill that would require cleanup of coal ash at four sites, but not the leaking coal ash at these three sites or other sites across North Carolina.  It would leave the decision whether to clean up these sites to DENR and a commission made of political appointees that does not include representatives of affected communities.

“Our in depth in investigations have determined that the Buck, Cape Fear and Lee coal ash ponds are among NC's most toxic and dangerous threats to drinking water and the health of nearby communities,” said Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance.  “Despite this, the coal ash bills recently introduced in the N.C. General Assembly don't require cleanup of these sites which made it imperative for us to take legal action today to pursue full decontamination of these high priority sites.”

The Cape Fear plant has High hazard dams that are rated in Poor condition and seep directly into the Cape Fear River, just three miles upstream of the drinking water intake for Sanford.  The dams on the river have been defective for years, but Duke Energy has not repaired them.  Earlier this year, Waterkeepers Alliance discovered that one of the Cape Fear dams had cracked and that Duke Energy had pumped over 60 million gallons of polluted coal ash water into the Cape Fear River, more than the amount spilled February into the Dan River.

“The dirt walls that hold back almost a billion gallons on coal ash at the Cape Fear Plant are failing,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “They leak every minute of every day and they are cracking and slumping. The half a million North Carolinians that get their drinking water downstream are in peril and until the ponds are cleaned up the risk will only get worse.”  

Leaking coal ash pits at Cape Fear are upstream of the drinking water intakes for Sanford, Harnett County, Dunn, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Brunswick County.

The Lee pits are directly on the banks of the Neuse River just a few miles upstream from the drinking water intake for Roxboro. They pollute groundwater with high levels of arsenic and discharge illegally into the River and surrounding wetlands.  The Lee dams are rated High hazard, failed to meet the minimum standard for stability, and have been damaged by flooding. 

“Lee has the worst arsenic pollution of all the Duke’s coal ash sites, just a few miles upstream from Goldsboro’s water system” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.  “It’s appalling that our elected officials in Raleigh are choosing to deny the citizens of Wayne County a much-needed cleanup, but fortunately citizens can take action under the Clean Water Act.”

Leaking coal ash pits at the Lee Power Station are upstream of drinking water intakes for Goldsboro and the Neuse Regional Water & Sewer Authority.

The Buck coal ash lagoons are in Salisbury on the Yadkin River, directly upstream from High Rock Lake and drinking water intakes for Denton and Albermarle. The Buck dams have been rated High hazard and have been found to have “serious” problems, including broken, cracked, and leaking structures.  The Buck lagoons, which contain pollutants such as cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, discharge illegally into the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake and have contaminated nearby groundwater. Homes are located near the pits, and local residents have expressed great concern about the impact of the coal ash pits.

“Drinking water supplies near the Buck coal ash lagoons have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals like toxic chromium and lead that are commonly found in coal ash,” said Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper.  “Duke Energy has refused to clean up these illegally polluting waste sites, and neither DENR nor the state Senate has required Duke to do so. We have been left with no other choice, and must take action to protect our rivers and our communities by enforcing clean water safeguards.”

Leaking coal ash pits at Buck are upstream of the drinking water intakes for: Denton, Albemarle, Norwood, Montgomery County, Anson County, Richmond County, Chesterfield (SC), Florence (SC), Georgetown (SC), and Horry (SC).
Under the Clean Water Act, the notice filings give Duke Energy and DENR 60 days to take action.  On behalf of citizen groups throughout North Carolina, the Southern Environmental Law Center has previously filed Clean Water Act notices for the Asheville, Riverbend, and Sutton plants of Duke Energy.  SELC has also intervened on behalf of conservation groups in the pending state court enforcement actions.


About Cape Fear River Watch
Founded in 1993, Cape Fear River Watch works to protect and improve the water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin through education, advocacy, and action.

About WATERKEEPER® Alliance
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 200 Waterkeeper organizations and focusing citizen advocacy on the issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol and protect more than 1.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.  Waterkeeper Alliance was founded in 1999 by veteran Waterkeepers and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to insure our global waterways are swimmable, drinkable and fishable. Learn more at: or follow @Waterkeeper on Twitter and Facebook.

About the Southern Environmental Law Center
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of more than 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Frank Holleman

Senior Attorney with a focus on litigation

Phone: 919-967-1450

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]

John Suttles

Deputy Director

Phone: 919-967-1450