Press Release | September 3, 2014

new suits re 3 coal ash sites in NC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Conservation groups today filed lawsuits in federal court against Duke Energy seeking to clean up toxic coal ash pollution from three Duke facilities that are contaminating rivers and groundwater supplies that provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.  The Clean Water Act lawsuits were filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Yadkin Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.  The suits address coal ash pollution and dam safety issues at Duke Energy’s Cape Fear site in Chatham County on the Cape Fear River, its Lee site in Goldsboro on the Neuse River, and its Buck site in Salisbury on the Yadkin River.

“We’re taking action to ensure these communities and rivers are protected from Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution,” 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.  “DENR and the General Assembly chose not to require cleanup of coal ash in these communities, so citizens groups are stepping up to enforce the law and protect clean water for the people of North Carolina.”

DENR failed to include many of Duke Energy’s Clean Water Act violations at these sites in its state court enforcement actions filed by DENR in response to an earlier notice filed by SELC and conservation groups.  DENR has not required a cleanup at these coal ash sites, and Duke Energy has not committed to clean them up.

“The Buck, Cape Fear, and Lee coal ash ponds are toxic and dangerous threats to drinking water and the health of nearby communities,” said Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance.  “DENR and the General Assembly have been asleep at the wheel by failing to clean up these high priority sites, while we have been actively investigating Duke’s violations and safety hazards and are now moving forward to enforce the law.”

The Cape Fear plant has high hazard dams that are all rated in poor condition and seep directly into the Cape Fear River, just three miles above the drinking water intake for Sanford and also upstream from the Harnett County, Dunn, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Brunswick County water system intakes.  The dams on the river have been defective for years, but Duke Energy has not repaired them.  Earlier this year, Waterkeeper 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, far more than the amount spilled in February into the Dan River.

“Almost a billion gallons of coal ash on the Cape Fear River are held back only by dirt dams that are failing and leaking,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “The solution is simple: get rid of them.  It’s long past time these defective and poorly-maintained hazards were removed.”

The Lee pits are directly on the banks of the Neuse River just a few miles upstream from the drinking water intake for Goldsboro. They are polluting groundwater with high levels of arsenic and discharge illegally into the River and surrounding wetlands.  The Lee dams are rated high hazard and failed to meet the minimum standard for stability.

“Lee has the worst arsenic pollution of all Duke’s coal ash sites, along with unsafe dams, just a few miles upstream from Goldsboro’s water system” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.  “The citizens of Wayne County deserve to have this unsafe site cleaned up.”

The Buck coal ash lagoons are near 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, have contaminated nearby groundwater and discharge illegally into the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake. Homes are located near the pits, and local residents have expressed great concern about the impact of the coal ash pits.

“For years, pollutants from the coal ash in the unlined pits at Buck have been leaking into the groundwater and contaminating residential drinking wells in the area,” said Terri Pratt, Interim Executive Director, Yadkin Riverkeeper.  “Duke needs to act immediately to remove the toxic coal ash to a safe location and ensure that neighbors of the plant can drink their water without fear.”

A recent bill by the North Carolina General Assembly would require removal of coal ash at four sites but does not require action at the three sites in today’s federal Clean Water Act lawsuits.

Today’s lawsuits regarding the Cape Fear and Buck facilities were filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and the lawsuit regarding the Lee facility was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  SELC has also intervened in pending state court enforcement actions on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Yadkin Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance, along with other conservation groups around the state.


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 Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation

Neuse RIVERKEEPER® Foundation protects, restores and preserves the Neuse River basin through education, advocacy and enforcement, in order to provide clean water for drinking, recreation and enjoyment to the communities that it serves.

About the Yadkin Riverkeeper

Yadkin Riverkeeper’s mission is to respect, protect and improve the Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin through education, advocacy and action. It is aimed at creating a clean and healthy river that sustains life and is cherished by its people. To achieve this vision, it seeks to accomplish the following objectives: sustain a RIVERKEEPER® program, measurably improve water quality, reestablish native bio-diversity, preserve and enhance the forest canopy, bring legal action to enforce state and federal environmental laws, and teach and practice a “river ethic” of ecological respect to all ages. For more information, visit or call 336-722-4949.

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