WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Chances are you'll spot plenty of boaters and fishermen at Sutton Lake near Wilmington on a sunny spring day, but Kemp Burdette, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, is concerned about what you can't see at the site off Highway 421 North.
"There's a lot of signs that encourage people to fish. There's a nice new boat ramp and a nice new fishing pier," Burdette said. "But there's nothing about the risk and what this lake is sitting right next to."
Sutton Lake is sitting next to a pair of ponds filled with 2.6 million tons of coal ash produced onsite at Duke Energy's Sutton Plant, a facility now fueled by natural gas.
Prior to retiring the coal-fired units in November 2013, the plant burned coal to produce steam, which turned turbines to generate electricity. Burning the coal produced ash that contains trace amounts of elements including selenium and arsenic, and environmentalists and some residents, who live near the Sutton Plant, are concerned about the potential for contamination from the unlined ash pits.
"We drink bottled water. We don't drink out of the tap," said Susan Bouchard, who lives in the Flemington community. "I even give bottled water to my cat and my dog."
But there's no need for area residents to worry about their drinking water, according to Jim Flechtner, executive director of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.
"We know our water is clean," Flechtner said. "We would welcome anyone to call us. Come see us. We'll share our data with them and show them what our plans are."
CFPUA is partnering with Duke to run a water line under the Cape Fear River to serve the Flemington community, which is currently served by two wells located between the neighborhood and the ash ponds. The waterline will also serve future growth along the Highway 421 corridor, but constructing that $2.25 million pipeline is expected to take nearly two years.
In the meantime, Duke promises to keep a close eye on water quality in using two new monitoring wells the company installed last fall.
Erin Culbert, a Duke spokeswoman, explained samples taken from the new wells have indicated the water is within standards.
But while Duke is taking steps to ensure residents have safe drinking water, Burdette doesn't think the company is doing enough to protect the environment and the people near the Sutton Plant.
"Duke could be doing a lot more to protect public health, Burdette said. "They could clean up these coal ash ponds."
Duke says it plans to close the ponds, but isn't providing many details.
In a letter to NC Governor Pat McCrory, Duke CCO Lynn Good promised to send the state a "conceptual closure plan" by mid September and remove the water from the ash basins in 18-24 months. Some don't think that's soon enough, but Culbert explains there are complicated factors to consider.
"It's important to use to have this be a scientific-based, disciplined approach so that we can make sure we're both incorporating cost effectiveness for our customers, but also making sure we protect the environment long term," she said.
"There is no need to study this anymore," Burdette said. "There's no need to talk about this anymore or to delay or to put off doing the right thing. It's time to clean them up."
Last week, the governor released a plan he says would result in the conversion or closure of ash pits at Duke's 14 coal-fired power plants across the state.
The plan however, doesn't force Duke to move its ash ponds away from the waterways, drawing criticism from environmental groups that say the McCrory's proposal doesn't go far enough.
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