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DENR: Duke coal ash pond pumping could be illegal

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An aerial photo shows a portable pump siphoning water from a coal ash pond into a discharge canal leading to the Cape Fear River near Moncure. (Rick Dove/Waterkeeper Alliance) An aerial photo shows a portable pump siphoning water from a coal ash pond into a discharge canal leading to the Cape Fear River near Moncure. (Rick Dove/Waterkeeper Alliance)
MONCURE. N.C. -

Duke Energy is facing new questions and possible legal trouble after photographs showed the utility pumping wastewater into a canal feeding the Cape Fear River.

WNCN Investigates first learned about this latest, possibly illegal, drainage last week, and obtained new photos and video of the ponds in question.

Aerial photos, taken by environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, appear to show Duke Energy crews pumping water from coal ash ponds into streams that lead to the Cape Fear River.

The ponds are at the head of the river, near the now closed Cape Fear Plant near Moncure in Chatham County.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, known as DENR, told WNCN Sunday that its inspectors discovered the pumping last week while visiting the site. The agency couldn't say if the visit was prompted by the photos or not.

DENR confirmed it is investigating if this was an illegal release of untreated waste water.

"We are aware of the activity and are investigating it," said spokesman Drew Elliott. "It could be routine maintenance, [or] it could be a release of untreated waste water in violation of their permit."

Duke Energy claims crews were simply doing routine maintenance to lower water levels.

"The pumps in question are temporary installations used to lower the water level in the ash basin in order to perform maintenance on equipment in the basin," said spokesman Jeff Brooks. "This maintenance activity is allowed under our permits and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is aware that this work is occurring."

That statement seems to contradict DENR's statement that its inspectors came upon the pumping, launching the current investigation.

Waterkeeper Alliance also showed WNCN Investigates video that the group says shows leaking water from the Cape Fear Plant ash pond dams.

Should DENR determine violations occurred here, it could be another headache for the already beleaguered Duke Energy.

Meanwhile, Duke and DENR employees who have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in relation to the Dan River spill will be in federal court later this week.

Coal ash is the waste material left after coal is burned and contains heavy metals, many of them toxic. Coal ash ponds are just one way to dispose of the ash by allowing the toxic material to settle to the bottom.

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