Increased levels of metals found in groundwater near coal ash plant


MONCURE — Increased levels of heavy metals — including barium, chromium, vanadium, arsenic, copper and lead — were found in groundwater samples tested in January near the Brickhaven coal ash site located in Moncure through testing required by N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality.

As a result, based on the elevated levels, DEQ’s Division of Waste Management has ordered an assessment of the site, as well as a work plan detailing any required corrective action based on the assessment.

The site, which is owned by Charah Inc., a Kentucky-based company that specializes in coal ash disposal, is where coal ash from Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Plant in Wilmington and the Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly are being stored. Coal ash is produced primarily from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants which contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Charah began monitoring the groundwater at the Brickhaven site in August 2015 prior to the transportation of any coal ash. Ever since, the company is required by permit to sample its surface and groundwater twice a year and submit those monitoring data reports to DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, according to Laura Leonard, public information officer for the division. According to Leonard, there are eight compliance (down-gradient from the site) wells and two background (up-gradient from the site) wells that require testing at the Brickhaven site.

In a June 21 letter from Elizabeth Werner, a hydrogeologist with DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, to Charah’s Environmental Manager Norman Divers, Werner notes “there are exceedances of groundwater standards established in 15A NCAC 2L .0202 (2L Standards) and surface water standards established in 15A NCAC 2B .0211 and .0216 (2B Standards) at the Brickhaven No. 2 Mine Structural Fill.”

The letter instructs Charah to “acquire the services of a North Carolina licensed professional geologist and submit a groundwater and surface water assessment work plan.” The work plan needs to include the facility conducting “an assessment investigation and may require corrective action based on the findings of the assessment.”

That indicates Charah must bring in a consultant to determine where and how the containments are getting into the groundwater; Charah must have a plan to DEQ within 60 days of the letter.

The letter is what is termed a “regulatory” letter, rather than a “violation” letter.

“It is a regulatory letter because the source of the exceedances is still being determined,” Leonard said. “If the source is found to be the structural fill [coal ash], then the company will be in violation of 2L Standards and will be required to perform corrective action.”

Therese Vick, a spokesman for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said the notification is an indication of problems at Brickhaven.

“They’ve made a huge mess out there and what’s going to be done about it,” Vick said in response to the order. “Chatham County residents deserve an explanation. We don’t want this happening to any other community.”

In 2015, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and other advocacy groups in Chatham and Lee counties filed a legal challenge against DEQ and continue to oppose the projects through the Office of Administrative Hearings. The first administrative judge ruled in favor of Duke Energy and Charah, a decision that was appealed. Superior Court Judge Carl Fox then ruled against Duke and Charah, a ruling the two entities appealed. The Court of Appeals issued a stay, permitting the company to continuing sending coal ash to Moncure while the parties again fight it out in administrative court.

Vick said the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League is working to “ensure that the department is fully transparent in this process and keeps the community apprised.” They are also “exploring other options” as well. Vick notes that their greatest concern “besides the environmental and the impact on groundwater is the impact on the community.”

All parties note that these metals could be naturally occurring, but the “requirement for additional assessment work outlined in the June 21, 2019, letter from DEQ to Charah will help to identify potential sources,” Leonard said.

“It’s hard to know if it’s naturally occurring or not,” Vick said. “The [Brickhaven] site was industrial before. But they’ve had changes from the background testing that needs to be addressed.”

In the meantime, residents who are concerned about the quality of their drinking water can always have the water tested by a certified laboratory, Leonard noted. A recent study conducted by Andrew George, Community Engagement Coordinator for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, found that 51 percent of Chatham County wells tested had levels of Chromium-6 that were above N.C. Health Goal standards, and that 84 percent of the wells contained high levels of vanadium. While that study has not yet determined a source for those containments, George notes that filters work well on most of these metals and containments. Reverse osmosis systems, which are whole house systems, will remove many of these heavy metals. For other filter systems, such as pitcher filters or sink filters, George said residents should seek those that are certified NSF-53, a certification from NSF International which is recognized by regulatory agencies at the local, state, federal and international level that a product complies with all standard requirements.

Casey Mann can be reached at