Press Release | June 19, 2013

Conservation Groups Seek to Stop Progress Energy’s Illegal Coal Ash Pollution of Sutton Lake

The Southern Environmental Law Center today sent a notice to Duke Energy Progress, Inc., that it will bring suit under the Clean Water Act to stop Progress’s coal ash pollution of Sutton Lake, a state-managed public fishing lake, and Progress’s coal ash pollution of groundwater, which is moving toward a local community’s drinking water wells.  The notice informs Progress, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that by treating Sutton Lake as a wastewater pond for its coal ash discharges, Progress has caused the Lake to become heavily contaminated with selenium and other pollution, and that Progress’s pollution is threatening the drinking water supply of a low-income community.  SELC is representing Cape Fear River Watch, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club.

“We’re taking action to stop the harmful pollution of one of the area’s most popular fishing lakes,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “For years, Progress has dumped untreated pollution from its coal ash lagoons into Sutton Lake.  Progress can’t treat this public fishing lake as its private wastewater treatment pond – too many people depend on this valuable public resource.”

Internal DENR documents reveal that the agency has determined that Progress’s selenium pollution has created a “high hazard” for reproductive failure of fish and waterfowl.  DENR’s most recent fish assessment for the Lake noted that the abundance and size of the largemouth bass population declined by 50 percent from 2008 to 2010 and that the bass were in poor condition.  In addition, DENR has commented that algae blooms in the Lake, which also threaten the fish population, are becoming more frequent due to Progress’s ammonia pollution from the coal ash lagoons.

“I enjoy fishing at Sutton Lake, and I know a lot of other people do too,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper.  “We need to ensure that the contamination from Progress’s coal ash is stopped and cleaned up.”

The notice also informs Progress and the environmental agencies that the Sutton coal ash lagoons are contaminating groundwater at the site that is migrating in the direction of nearby drinking water wells for the low-income, racially diverse Flemington community.  Flemington’s water supply is listed by the state as being at high risk of contamination.  The community also has a history of water pollution problems; it was switched to the current wells after its previous wells were contaminated by a nearby landfill.

In addition, the contaminated groundwater is flowing into a canal that discharges into Sutton Lake, creating an additional unpermitted source of contamination in the lake.  Progress operates the Sutton facility, a coal-fired power plant being converted to natural gas, on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.  The Progress facility includes two unlined coal ash lagoons alongside Sutton Lake.  In 2010, a portion of the berms collapsed, spilling coal ash out of the lagoon.

“This pollution of state waters is yet another example of the toxic legacy of coal-fired power plants in North Carolina,” said Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.  “Community drinking water and a public fishing lake are both at risk, and now it’s time to clean up the mess.”

The groups’ notice letter comes in the wake of two other notices this year in which SELC spotlighted coal ash contamination at Progress’s Skyland plant in Asheville and Duke Energy’s Riverbend plant north of Charlotte.  The state subsequently sued the utilities in both those cases, stating that they were violating state law and that the coal ash pollution “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state.”  SELC also filed a federal court lawsuit over the Riverbend coal ash pollution on June 11.

“To let a utility treat this important fishery as a dumping ground for its coal ash pollutants is bad for the fish, bad for the public, and bad for the state,” said Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator at the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Selenium contamination has harmed fish populations in at least two other lakes at Progress power plants.  Selenium contamination from the coal ash lagoon at Progress’s Roxboro plant devastated fish populations in Lake Hyco, and selenium exceedences and fish deformities associated with selenium contamination have been documented recently in Mayo Lake.  Meanwhile, at Belews Lake, selenium from a leaking Duke Power coal ash basin eradicated 19 of the 20 species of fish formerly present in the lake.  In 2007, U.S. EPA classified both Lake Hyco and Belews Lake as “proven ecological damage cases” due to the coal ash pollution.  Selenium accumulation can cause developmental abnormalities in fish and amphibians and has led to the death of entire local fish populations.

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 the Sierra Club
Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Inspired by nature, we are 2.1 million of your friends and neighbors, working together to protect our communities and the planet. Read more at .

About the Waterkeeper Alliance
Founded in 1999 by environmental attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and several veteran Waterkeeper Organizations, Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement of on-the-water advocates who patrol and protect over 100,000 miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.


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