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Last week’s column of reminders for local action got a fascinating amount of response. What surprised me was the number of people who had no idea what was going on with the Cape Fear River—or that our river watch was making headlines. So, I got in touch with our river keeper, Kemp Burdette, to see if he would answer some additional questions. Though there was a crack in a dam, he made the time, thankfully.

coal ash

It’s going to take a lot of work to get the devastated parts of the river contaminated by coal ash, dumped from Duke Energy, clean again. Courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch

Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) exists for one reason only: to protect the river. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority issued a statement last week that our drinking water was not impacted by the coal ash spill near Raleigh. Still, one does have to wonder how that can include the illegal and heretofore unknown pumping into the river? Just to re-cap: Riverwatch made national news a few weeks ago trying to get answers about the coal ash ponds, and were prohibited from proceeding on a public waterway by a sheriff’s deputy, who was sent out to protect the interest of Duke Energy. The video is currently on the front page of their website,

encore (e): There’s a crack in a dam—which one; where? And is this a bad thing?

Kemp Burdette (KB): Yes, one of the five high-hazard dams at the Cape Fear Steam Station cracked. This is a retired coal fired plant owned by Duke Energy and located in Chatham County, right where the Deep and Haw rivers merge to form the Cape Fear.

e: Tell us a little about coal ash and why CFRW is so concerned.

KB: Coal ash is what’s left over after burning coal—the parts that don’t combust. Typically, it’s very high in heavy metals, such as arsenic, selenium, lead, thallium, manganese, iron, chromium, etc. CFRW is concerned about coal ash for a number of reasons:

1. The coal ash ponds at the Sutton Plant in New Hanover County and the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham County contaminate ground water. The ponds (pits is really a better word) are not lined, and the coal ash is continually leeching into the groundwater. Many people in North Carolina drink groundwater, either from private wells or from municipal groundwater wells.

2. The threat of a catastrophic failure like what we saw on the Dan River will remain as long as these ponds remain on our waterways.

3. Sutton Lake is also highly contaminated with selenium, according to 2013 research out of Wake Forest, by an internationally recognized expert on selenium impacts on fish. Sutton Lake is a public fishing lake managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. People fish in that lake almost every day, and I know for a fact that many people eat those fish they catch.

e: How did you find out about the pumping?

KB: We sent a photographer up in a plane to photograph the area prior to making a trip to collect samples. The photographer caught Duke in the act of illegally discharging 61 million gallons of coal ash wastewater. In a way, it was just dumb luck.

e: What does it mean for our drinking water?

KB: That’s a great question—and it’s not just our drinking water. A number of towns/counties/entities get their drinking water from the Cape Fear, below the coal ash ponds at the Cape Fear Plant, including Sanford, Lillington, Dunn, Harnett County, Fayetteville (and Fort Bragg), New Hanover County, and much of Brunswick County. These water-treatment plants have varying degrees of treatment technology. Duke illegally discharged that 61 million gallons secretly over two months’ time. The treatment plants had no idea—they weren’t looking for heavy metals.

e: What can we do to stop it?

KB: We have to remove these leaking ponds from our state’s waterways and place the ash in lined and capped landfill facilities.

e: How does this relate to the Dan River and to West Virginia?

KB: Well, imagine what a disaster like Dan River would do to our downtown and riverwalk, our beaches (remember, the river empties into the Atlantic at Bald Head Island), our shellfish, and our finfish. Imagine what would happen if half a million people had their drinking water contaminated—that’s almost twice as many as in West Virginia.

e: How worried should we be?

KB: We should be worried, and for a couple of reasons. Mainly, Duke Energy is consistently operating in ways that can only be described as criminal. They secretly and illegally pumped toxic wastewater into drinking water supplies, and they failed to get the required permits. They are contaminating groundwater at every single Duke facility in North Carolina (14 in all with a total of 37 coal ash ponds).

As well, NC DENR [North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources]  has failed to hold them accountable. The agency that is supposed to protect the environment and people of NC has decided that taking care of customers is their main priority. By customers, they mean industry, not the people of NC.

e: What sort of long-term health impacts are we really talking about?

KB: The health impacts of long-term exposure to heavy metals are significant, especially to developing bodies (fetuses, nursing children, and children under 18). When you mix heavy metals, the risks are even higher.

e: Impacts to wildlife and the ecosystem?

KB: Huge. Sutton Lake is a great example. Selenium levels in the lake are very high and the impacts to fish are staggering. A well-known selenium expert estimates that selenium kills over 900,000 blue gill (a fish) in Sutton Lake annually. That’s just one species; other species are impacted, and the numbers would be similar. In the 1970s coal ash wiped out 19 of 20 fish species in Belews Lake, in Stokes County. When I say wiped out, I mean extirpated—local extinction.

e: Impacts economically?

KB: Also huge. The chemical spill in West Virginia left 300,000 people unable to drink or even bathe in their water and had a $61 million impact on the local economy. The economic impact from the Dan River spill is expected to exceed $70 million.

e: What has happened since the piece ran on MSNBC? 

KB:  First, the assertion that we were trespassing by Duke was and is ridiculous. Here is the letter we received from the Chatham County Sheriff a couple of days after being told to leave the water, the public trust water, by the sheriff’s deputy:

Thanks for meeting me earlier today in reference to the interaction of my deputy, the riverkeepers, and Duke Energy staff last week.

As you know, on March 13, 2014, a deputy was dispatched to Duke Energy (Cape Fear Coal Plant) in Moncure reference a trespassing call.

The deputy dealt with several issues including, “Are occupants in a boat, on canal waters, on private property, trespassing?”

My deputy having limited information at hand—made a decision that in his opinion harmed neither side and kept the peace.

Since, we consulted with Jep Rose—the county attorney—about conflicting interpretations of property rights and water rights.

At this point in time with the information currently available, Mr. Rose has advised us to consider the canal waters to be a publicly navigable waterway. Again, thank you for meeting with me this afternoon and I appreciate your friendship and working relationship.

Sheriff Richard. H. Webster
Chatham County Sheriff’s Office

Other updates include the revelation by Duke that the dam had developed a crack. Interestingly, we have photos of the crack that are clearly recognizable from a plane flying hundreds of feet in the air and somehow NC DENR inspectors missed the crack, while practically standing on top of it to photograph the ponds during the inspection initiated by our photographs.

We also have the results from the samples we took the day that was featured on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” They are very, very bad.

e: Are we still worried about Titan?

KB: Yes. And we are still fighting very hard to stop Titan. The connection to coal is very clear. Titan plans to burn coal, and they will create coal ash just the way Duke’s plants do. The difference is that Titan will have a long list of additional impacts, including wetlants destruction, potential groundwater contamination, lowering the water table in our aquifers, serious air pollution with health impacts, traffic impacts, and, of course, catastrophic impacts on the NE Cape Fear ecosystem.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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