Two environmental groups have accused Duke Energy, one of the Democratic Party’s major corporate supporters and a recipient of large green energy subsidies, of contaminating drinking water supplies in Charlotte, N.C.
The plaintiffs say Duke is misleading the public about its environmental record, and could face federal sanctions and a hit to its public image in Charlotte, where the utility is headquartered.
Alleged environmental damage by Duke could also pose challenges for the Obama administration, which has strong ties to the company.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF) filed a notice of intent on Tuesday announcing that they plan to sue Duke for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
The plaintiffs claim Duke allowed carcinogenic chemicals from coal ash storage facilities to leak into Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s primary drinking water reservoir.
"Duke is discharging polluted water into the lake. The pollution includes arsenic, cobalt, boron, barium, strontium, manganese, zinc, and iron," SELC and CRF claimed in a Tuesday news release.
Duke’s closeness with the Obama administration could be problematic for the president, who is already under pressure from environmentalist groups to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.
"The fact that the crony capitalists of Duke Energy, heavy donors to the Obama campaign, may be serious polluters ought to diminish the president's credibility as a crusader for clean water and air," said Matthew Vadum, a senior editor at the Capital Research Center.
Duke CEO Jim Rogers is a top Obama supporter. He served as "a public face and a private fund-raiser" for the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, according to the New York Times.
He was considered a top contender for Energy Secretary after the resignation of Steven Chu. Instead, the president nominated Ernest Moniz, whose energy initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been supported financially by Duke Energy.
The company’s extensive political connections have come under scrutiny since it received more than $200 million in stimulus subsidies for green energy projects.
Two of its subsidized projects received waivers from regulations in the National Environmental Policy Act, even though the company was at the time embroiled in a pair of lawsuits over air pollution at its coal power plants.
The most recent environmental allegations against the company claim that two "lagoons" used to store coal ash from the company’s Riverbend coal plant near Charlotte are unlined, and hence do not protect against seepage from the lagoons into the nearby Mountain Island Lake and Catawba River.
"If there was ever a place where it is irresponsible to store coal ash, this is it," Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the SELC, said in a statement. "Duke should remove its toxic ash to a lined landfill away from drinking water and remove pollutants from the groundwater."
Duke said it is still reviewing the notice of intent, but defended its environmental record in North Carolina in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon.
"We agree Mountain Island Lake is a critical resource for our region, and Duke Energy has been monitoring water quality there since 1953," spokeswoman Erin Culbert wrote. "We consistently find that water quality is good, fish are healthy and drinking water supplies are safe."
"Arsenic levels in Mountain Island Lake are at the lowest amounts laboratory instruments can accurately measure just a short distance from the plant," Culbert said.
Holleman said the company’s defense was "really misleading."
Both he and Rick Gaskins, executive director of the CRF, cited a 2012 study by Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, which found that arsenic and other chemicals had accumulated in the Mountain Island Lake sediment.
Those chemicals can seep into the water periodically, but they are not constantly measurable in the water supply, Holleman and Gaskins said.
The notice of intent gives Duke Energy 60 days to respond. If it does not move to clean up the lagoons in question, SELC and CRF will move forward with the lawsuit.
Holleman said he hopes the legal pressure will spur Duke to act, but he also noted that there is a "reputational risk" for Duke in "allowing this ash to stay here forever," given that the company is headquartered in Charlotte.
Officials from Charlotte-Mecklenburg County have previously expressed confidence in the soundness of Duke’s coal ash storage facilities.
Utility regulators in 2010 "met with Duke Energy to learn more about the coal ash basins at Riverbend. We are satisfied and confident that Duke is maintaining and inspecting the ash basins to protect public health and the water supply and remains in full compliance with existing state regulations."