Catawba called endangered for third time since 2001

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comApril 17, 2013 

— Once again, a national environmental group lists the Catawba River among the most endangered water bodies in the country.

It’s the third time the river has been placed on the list by conservationists. the most recent listing was in 2008.

On Wednesday, American Rivers announced this year’s list of most endangered rivers with the Catawba at No. 5. The annual ranking comes from perceived problems or threats to water quality, water use and a variety of public health and safety concerns.

The Catawba was red-flagged because of the presence of coal ash ponds – storage ponds containing heavy metals created through power generation – along reservoirs used for drinking water.

“We’re seeing seepages out of the ash ponds in the basin which can release carcinogens into the water,” said Peter Raabe, North Carolina conservation director for American Rivers.

Duke Energy manages Catawba River lakes and power plants along them. The company disputes claims that the Catawba isn’t being cared for or is in disarray.

“It’s disappointing that American Rivers and its partners continue to bait the public and play on emotions to further their own agenda,” said Erin Culbert, Duke spokeswoman. “This does nothing to serve the Catawba River.”

Duke testing “consistently” finds good water quality, healthy fish and safe drinking water supplies, she said. Dams are safe and have routine inspections, while trace metals are “at the lowest amounts laboratory instruments can accurately measure” at short distances from facilities. Culbert also said seepage from coal ash basins, for the past few years a concern of environmental groups like the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, are “normal and necessary” for the earthen dams’ structural integrity.

“Duke engineers have reviewed seepage and continue to find nothing of concern to dam safety or water quality,” she said. “The volume of seepage is extremely small and has no impact to the overall water quality in the lake.”

Catawba Riverkeeper Rick Gaskins disagrees. Both states along the Catawba have issued multiple fish consumption advisories for elements unrelated to coal ash, and both public and private testing has shown metals in the water, he said.

“There are an awful lot of reasons to believe there are problems,” Gaskins said. “Until Duke kind of acknowledges that there’s a problem, they’re not going to do anything about it.”

Gaskins said the Catawba is unique for having four coal ash ponds, all on reservoirs used for drinking water. Utilities are doing a great job of keeping elements like arsenic, which his group has detected in testing, out of the water that reaches public consumption, he said. Gaskins believes they shouldn’t have to.

He called statements that there aren’t environmental problems “kind of amazing.”

“The bottom line is, the reason they listed the Catawba again is they considered the coal ash ponds a threat to drinking water supplies,” Gaskins said.

In 2001, American Rivers listed the Catawba 13th among endangered rivers, citing explosive population growth and a lack of water use planning among both Carolinas. In 2008 the Catawba was named most endangered river in the country. Concerns then were interbasin transfers, an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case over water use and a need for more water use modeling.

Other environmental groups, including Southern Environmental Law Center and Union of Concerned Scientists, have in the past three years named the Catawba among their most threatened or stressed rivers.

One of the areas noted by American Rivers was Riverbend Steam Station, which retired April 1.

“We plan to close its ash basins once they are no longer needed, in close coordination with state regulators,” Culbert said. “We are evaluating multiple closure options to ensure we select methods that provide high long-term water quality protection first and foremost.”

Culbert also noted growing partnerships among regional utilities in water planning and protection. Duke’s federal hydroelectric relicensing campaign in 2008 created the nonprofit Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group. That collection of 18 public utilities announced last week that they’ve completed a study to determine and expand the amount of water available for use in the Catawba. A master plan supply study is ongoing, too.

“The Catawba River is well cared for, but it works hard every day to support a variety of needs,” said Jimmy Bagley, group vice-chair from Rock Hill. “Our charge as an organization is to work hard for the river.”

Part of the American Rivers designation is a call to improve for the rivers listed. As past listings cited a lack of planning and cooperation in the basin, groups like the water management collective don’t see those problems persisting.

“The Catawba River Basin is one of the most studied in the country,” said Barry Gullet, water management group chair out of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. “Our forward-looking planning identified challenges the river will face, and we’re leveraging the expertise and resources to intercede now and protect this vital resource.”

Raabe said each year’s endangered rivers listing is intended to “shine a spotlight” on issues his group believes can be resolved within 12 months; In this instance, that Duke lays out plans to improve or close ash basins. Appearing three times on the list in just more than a decade isn’t a selling point for the Catawba, Raabe said, but it is worth noting that all three instances were for different causes.

“It’s a good sign, because it means that progress on those other issues is being made,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that there are so many issues, but it’s a pretty big river with a lot of people and a lot of tugs on it.”

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