Facts about the Catawba River’s risks

• More than 1.5 million people in Charlotte, Gastonia, Hickory, Rock Hill and elsewhere depend on the Catawba for drinking water and power generation

• Coal ash ponds can contaminate drinking water and hamper recreation when not properly secured and monitored

• The river flows through 11 dammed lakes, including Lake Norman, all of which are used for swimming and boating

• Visit www.americanrivers.org/catawbariver for more information

Source: Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation

HUNTERSVILLE – Coal ash ponds and untreated sewage have done more harm than merely altering the public’s perception of the Catawba River. 

The waste entering the 217-mile long river over the past year, according to some experts, has severely damaged the river. American Rivers, an organization devoted to river maintenance, named the Catawba River the nation’s fifth-most endangered river in an April 16 report.

Four active coal ash ponds and a series of inactive waste ponds led the river to be included in American Rivers’ report.

Sam Perkins, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation director of technical programs, said the impact of the listing can be felt throughout the region. The river plays a major role in residents’ daily lives.

“This listing brings some much-needed attention to what is currently the nation's No. 1 most threatening water quality issue,” said Perkins, noting that the April 1 closing of Duke Energy’s Mount Holly-based Riverbend Steam Station, which held the ash ponds, could help.

“This river rises to the top as the most threatened water quality because nowhere else in the nation will you find such a large, potent, and dated contaminant source so close to the drinking water intakes that serve 860,000 people,” Perkins added. 

But Duke Energy officials issued a preemptive statement before the rankings came out disputing the river's endangered status. 

"It's disappointing that American Rivers and its partners continue to bait the public and play on emotions to further their own agenda," Duke's Erin Culbert wrote in a statement. "This does nothing to serve the Catawba River. While they focus on promoting unfounded gimmicks, we will continue to collaborate with the 18 public drinking water utilities along the river whoa re taking real action to protect our water supply for this and future generations."

Duke partners with the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, a nonprofit that works to address the needs facing the Catawba River Basin. The group is made up of the 18 public drinking water utitilies that have intakes along the river as well as Duke Energy. 

Perkins said the river is “decreasingly able to provide plentiful, clean water (for thermoelectric power) because of the demands placed and impacts made upon it with the region's growing population."

“For the coal ash left over after coal combustion, wet handling of coal ash was the cheapest easiest option around, and that is why the ponds are so pervasive.  This option also presents the most risk to the river, which has long served as the key drinking water supply for this region.  Can they be controlled?  In this particular case with Riverbend and its very old ponds, history has shown that the answer is no, they cannot be adequately controlled.”

Duke contends that the ash dams are safe, and "we have a robust safety program that includes routine inspections and preventative maintenance." 

Rick Gaskins, the director of the Riverkeeper Foundation, said the pressures on the river have to be alleviated in order to lower the ranking and raise the river’s viability.

“It’s used so heavily for the generation of electricity and drinking water. It’s hard to keep a balance (even without pollution),” he said.

Gaskins added there is more work to be done.

“Riverbend Station needs to clean its ash ponds and dispose of waste. For (still) operating plants, they need to clean up wet ash ponds and switch to a dry ash handling system. That’s the standard practice now in other areas.”

Perkins agreed.

“Riverbend must be shut down in a way that does not prolong the contamination threat to the drinking water source for 860,000 people. Leaving the ash in place will allow its metals to steep into Mountain Island Lake for generations to come.  The ash needs to be completely removed from the site and transported to a lined landfill.”

The high number of people the river serves means it’s increasingly important a solution is brought to the forefront to improve the river and quality of life, Gaskins said. The ranking could be of a benefit if it changes the way people use the river.

“Hopefully, it will be a wake-up call for people,” he said. “Something’s got to happen.”