On Monday, Waterkeeper Alliance released several aerial photos showing Duke Energy workers pumping coal ash wastewater into a canal that drains into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Duke Energy is the company responsible for the massive coal ash spill that polluted the Dan River in February.

The photos show Duke employees pumping wastewater from two of Duke’s coal ash lagoons into a canal that drains into the Cape Fear River. The photos were taken on March 10 when Waterkeeper Alliance conducted a flyover of the coal ash impoundments at Duke’s Cape Fear Plant.

According to Waterkeeper, Duke’s Clean Water Act permit only allows discharges of wastewater when the pond level reaches the top of the lagoon’s vertical discharge pipe, which is similar to a sink’s overflow drain. Yet Duke readily admitted that its workers were pumping wastewater out of a pond into the canal leading to the Cape Fear River.

The river is a source of drinking water for citizens of Fayetteville, Sanford, Dunn, Fort Bragg, Wilmington, and Harnett County.

Though Duke admitted pumping coal ash wastewater into the watershed, a spokesman claimed the act was part of a “routine maintenance” program. Spokesman Jeff Brooks told the New York Times that the employees were “lowering the water to conduct the maintenance they need to,” though he did not say what type of maintenance was being performed or state environmental regulators had been notified.

“To label the secret, unmitigated, intentional discharge of untold amounts of highly toxic wastewater as ‘routine maintenance’ seems ludicrous,” said Peter Harrison of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Here, Duke Energy has admitted that it deliberately emptied the contents of its ash ponds into the Cape Fear River watershed, just weeks after decimating at least 70 miles of the Dan River with its coal ash.”

Duke Energy - pumping wastewater

Photo via: Waterkeeper Alliance

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) claims that it was not notified of Duke’s intention to pump the ponds and that regulators first noticed the pumping during a site visit last week. “If DENR did not authorize Duke’s pumping, it would show an appalling disregard for the law and the welfare of North Carolinians,” Harrison said.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette is concerned that “neither Duke nor DENR gave any public notice that untold gallons of concentrated, untreated coal ash waste was deliberately dumped into the Cape Fear watershed.”

“Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians rely on the Cape Fear river for drinking water, fishing and swimming,” Burdette said. “We do not want heavy metals from coal ash in our river.”

Duke Energy operates 14 facilities in North Carolina. Most of the company’s coal ash ponds have been in operation for decades, and residents and environmental groups have attempted to force Duke to clean up its aging, unlined coal ash ponds for years. On March 6, a state judge ordered the company to create a plan to address its leaking coal ash ponds and the areas they have contaminated.

However, the order comes only after a pipeline running under a coal ash pond at Duke’s Dan River facility leaked tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River on February 2. Environmental groups had previously made multiple efforts to file citizen lawsuits against the company, which were blocked by DENR.

North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican and former Duke employee of 28 years, and the administration’s DENR have been accused of maintaining a cozy relationship with energy companies like Duke.

“This was either illegal, unilateral action by Duke – or a quiet backroom deal with DENR,” said Waterkeeper Alliance Global Campaign Coordinator Donna Lisenby. “There is no evidence that any valid, publicly available permit allows them to discharge untold gallons of untreated, concentrated coal ash wastewater.”

For More Background Information, Read the Full Report at Waterkeeper.org

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.