Press Release | June 7, 2013

Southern Environmental Law Center Notifies DENR of Unpermitted Coal Ash Contamination at Lee Steam Station Near Goldsboro

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of a coalition of local and regional conservation groups, today filed comments informing state environmental regulators that a draft discharge permit for the former Progress Energy’s H.F. Lee Steam Electric Plant near Goldsboro fails to address ongoing coal ash contamination of state waters, including the Neuse River.

The comments, filed by SELC on behalf of the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, address persistent pollution from the unlined, 143-acre Lee coal ash lagoon as well as older, buried coal ash dumps at the facility.  “The state claims in this draft permit that the most primitive technology – an unlined hole in the ground – is state of the art,” said Nick Torrey, associate attorney at SELC.  “Nothing could be further from the truth.  This pond leaches serious contamination into the groundwater, and it periodically leaks streams of polluted water from its dike.  Granting a permit that ignores these problems would be a license for even more unmonitored, uncontrolled pollution.”

Years of monitoring data show the coal ash lagoons at Lee have contaminated groundwater at the site with toxic contaminants, including arsenic at 64 times the applicable standard, boron at 7 times the standard, chromium at 5 times the standard, manganese at 41 times the standard, and iron at 112 times the standard.  Some of the contamination extends beyond the “compliance boundaries” set by state groundwater regulations. 

“This type of chronic contamination must be stopped and cleaned up in order to protect the Neuse River,” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.  “It’s time for the state to follow its own rules and require a full cleanup at Lee.” 

The groups’ comment letter comes as coal ash is receiving increased public and regulatory attention in North Carolina.  The state recently sued Progress, now known as Duke Energy Progress, over coal ash pollution at its Skyland plant in Asheville.  On May 24, the state filed a similar suit against Duke Energy Carolinas, the former Duke Power, over coal ash pollution at its Riverbend plant north of Charlotte.  Both suits were filed in response to notice letters sent under the Clean Water Act by SELC, and state that the utilities’ “unpermitted seeps” violate North Carolina 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.”

“Unlined ash pits next to rivers and lakes are an ineffective and unsafe way to manage toxic coal ash,” said Ulla Reeves of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.  “North Carolina needs to get serious about holding the utilities accountable for their water pollution and not give them a blank check for more of the same.”

Today’s comment letter responds to a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit issued for public comment by DENR under the Clean Water Act.  SELC and the conservation groups’ letter notes that in addition to failing to address groundwater contamination and seeps, the draft permit lacks any limits for arsenic, selenium, and other toxic constituents of coal ash.  It also lacks nitrogen limits required by the Neuse River rules to prevent nutrient loading and algae blooms.  The drinking water intake for the Goldsboro water system is less than 10 miles downstream from the Lee site.

The permit also fails to require a closure plan for retiring the coal ash lagoon now that the Lee power plant is being converted to natural gas.  “As old, dirty power plants are shut down or converted to other fuel sources, the state must ensure that the coal ash at Lee and the 13 other facilities around the state is permanently stored in ways that will prevent it from contaminating our rivers, lakes, and groundwater supplies,” said Stephanie Schweickert of the N.C. Conservation Network. 

DENR’s public notice for the draft permit states that the agency expects to issue a final permit by July 1.


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.

About the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation
The Neuse RIVERKEEPER(r) 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 Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Founded in 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at

About the N.C. Conservation Network
The North Carolina Conservation Network is a statewide network of over 90 environmental, community and environmental justice organizations focused on protecting North Carolina’s environment and public health. The NC Conservation Network supports, trains and coordinates diverse groups and directly advocates to achieve equitable and sustainable solutions for our environment.

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

Nick Torrey

Senior Attorney