Duke Energy reaches $1.5 million settlement over Sutton plant, downplays contamination fears

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coal-ash
One of the coal ash pits at the Sutton plant. File photo.

WILMINGTON – Duke Energy reached a $1.5 million settlement  with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) over groundwater contamination from the Sutton coal ash pits.

The settlement, reached on Wednesday Nov. 23, resolves a suit filed by the SELC in 2013 when, after Duke closed its Sutton facility, operators of the power plant left coal ash in unlined pits that allowed toxins to seep into the groundwater and potentially the Cape Fear River. The 2013 suit also addressed concerns of the levels of vanadium, a heavy metal that was spreading in a plume towards the unincorporated Flemington area.

Duke has since agreed to build a new waterline for Flemington residents. The Cape Fear Utility Authority, which constructed the new line, were required by Duke to never again tap a 11,000 acre area near the Sutton plant for fear of heavy metal contamination of the groundwater. (Port City Daily went on site, along with the Sierra Club, to cover the situation in 2013).

A separate suit – dismissed as part of this settlement – concerned contamination of Sutton Lake, a former cooling pond reservoir that is now a popular fishing site.

As part of the settlement, Duke Energy will pay $1 million into a fund for improving water quality in the Cape Fear Basin. The fund will also cover treating the water in Sutton Lake. Duke will provide an additional $250,000 to match an equal amount form conservation groups for clean-up and waterline maintenance.

“This settlement will benefit the waters, lands, and communities of the lower Cape Fear Watershed for years to come,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney for SELC. “With this settlement, the conservation groups have now achieved their goals to address Duke Energy’s coal ash storage at Sutton. The Sutton coal ash is being moved to safe dry, lined storage, the water from the Sutton coal ash lagoons is being treated, the Flemington community has gotten a waterline, and now the waters of the Cape Fear will be improved to compensate for the coal ash pollution of our waters.”

The settlement also creates an oversight board with representatives from the Cape Fear River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, Duke Energy, the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the Southeastern North Carolina Environmental Justice Coalition.

Duke Energy played down concerns of toxic contamination, referring to the settlement as an investment to “promote water quality.” In a press release, Duke said:

More than three decades of sampling using well accepted scientific techniques and hundreds of thousands of fish observations demonstrates that water quality in Sutton Lake remains good, with trace elements within state water quality standards. Fish populations are thriving, healthy and safe to eat. We also routinely sample water quality in the Cape Fear River, which continues to be good with no concerns for fish or other aquatic life.

Duke’s press release made no mention of the groundwater contamination concerns that lead to the new waterlines built for Flemington or the in-perpetuity ban on tapping groundwater near the Sutton plant.

Wednesday’s settlement is separate from the 2015 State-imposed $25.1 million fine for contamination at the Sutton plant. That fine, the largest in state history, was one of several large fines aimed at Duke’s 14 coal-powered electric plants. The SELC maintains an interactive map of the sites with information on contamination and testing.