Southeast River Runs Part 2: Coal ash on the Catawba River

Guest Blog | June 25, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the second blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Rick Gaskins, Catawba Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post. 

Kayakers on the Catawba River at Landsford Canal State Park, S.C.

The Catawba River runs approximately 320 miles from its headwaters near Blowing Rock, North Carolina to the Congaree swamp in the midlands of South Carolina. Over its length the Catawba undergoes many changes, and faces many challenges and competing uses. Millions of people in the Southeast rely on the Catawba for drinking water. As it flows through many geographic regions the Catawba provides habitat for an array of species; many, like the Rocky Shoals Spider Lily (click Read More for a photo!), are unique to the Catawba or found in very few other places.

The river and its’ eleven lakes are heavily used for boating, hunting, fishing, swimming and other recreation. Some of the surprising things to be discovered on and about the River are its historical significance in the outcome of the Revolutionary War, the National Whitewater Center on the great falls of the Catawba, and the ruins of at least 600 Grist mills on Charlotte’s creeks.

“There are lots of great places for paddling and hiking on the River, plenty of good stuff going on close to where people live, ” says Rick Gaskins, the Catawba Riverkeeper. “People will call me looking for things to go see within a few hours’ drive, and I say ‘how about 15 minutes?’,” says Gaskins, “it’s right here in our own back yard.”

Unfortunately, however, the Catawba is also heavily impaired by industry, especially from water-thirsty, polluting electricity production from coal and nuclear plants.

Duke Energy is the Catawba’s biggest user, with the four power plants on its banks representing almost half of Duke’s generation capacity. Power plants withdraw 38-48% of the river’s volume for cooling water, and generate the billions of gallons of toxic coal ash stored on its banks. Coal ash pollution from the retiring Riverbend Power Station has been found in Mountain Island Lake, the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people in the greater Charlotte area, prompting several lawsuits.

Riverbend Power Plant coal ash ponds on Mtn. Island Lake near Charlotte, NC. Photo by Nancy Pierce

At last official count in 2010 there were 14 impoundments holding over 3.8 billion gallons of coal ash along the Catawba’s banks. That’s enough to cover 8,800 football fields one foot deep. Four coal ash impoundments sit up to 80 feet above the banks of the Catawba River and are rated by the EPA to pose a High Hazard to nearby communities. These aging and often unstable impoundments threaten drinking water reservoirs, and in the event of failure could cause billions of dollars of property damage and even loss of life.

Coal ash has contributed to the Catawba becoming one of America’s most endangered rivers, and recent fish advisories for unsafe levels of metals and PCBs highlight the impact that this and other sources of pollution are having on the river. Coal ash isn’t the only problem facing the Catawba, it is impacted by a slew of issues like urbanization, stormwater and agricultural runoff.

The Catawba River is home to the largest known stand of the Rocky Shoals Spider Lilly

Even with all the problems facing the Catawba, some positive changes are on the horizon. Local governments like Concord and Kanopolis have taken steps to reduce water consumption. The Riverbend power plant will close this year, stopping the growth of its coal ash ponds and giving an opportunity for Duke to do the right thing and move the ash to lined landfills away from the river. Duke CEO Jim Rogers has acknowledged that Duke will eventually have to clean up the coal ash ponds adjoining Mountain Island Lake.

Rick Gaskins asks, “why not clean up the ash ponds now as part of the closure of the power plant rather than allowing the ash waste to continue to seep into the drinking water reservoir and groundwater indefinitely?”

Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution to the Black Warrior, and all rivers nationwide. Currently, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today asking that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Catawba Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working to restore the Catawba River and its watershed. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at

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