BELEWS CREEK — The Trump administration’s overhaul of the Clean Water Act earlier this year removes Belews Lake from its protection and environmentalists are at odds with federal and Duke Energy officials over how this potentially affects that and at least a dozen other lakes.
Environmentalists are suing the federal government, claiming changes made to the landmark environmental act put Belews Lake and many other water bodies at risk, including some that are sources for drinking water.
Duke Energy owns the 3,864-acre lake, a popular recreational site for boating and fishing located about 20 miles northwest of Greensboro.
President Donald Trump campaigned on overhauling the act, saying that it squelched private property rights. Trump signed an executive order shortly after taking office, directing federal agencies to begin the work of repealing and replacing it.
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The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of several environmental groups, filed for an injunction in April to throw out the rule changes issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C., is scheduled to hear summary motions in SELC's lawsuit on Dec. 1, but a ruling won't likely come until later, according to Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the SELC.
Holleman said the change not only prevents provisions of the act from being applied to the lake, which was created as a steam station cooling pond, but also takes away a vital avenue for the community to hold Duke Energy accountable if it is polluted.
The change revises the definition of “waters of the United States” to exclude cooling ponds. The 1972 law regulates and sets standards for pollutant discharges into these waters, which includes lakes, rivers, wetlands and coastal areas.
And that’s where Belews Lake and similar lakes factor in. Under the new definition, Holleman said the entire lake now is considered part of the steam station’s wastewater treatment facility and not subject to the federal environmental law.
However, Nathan Craig, a principal with Duke Energy who specializes in water and natural resource issues, said the lake always has been treated as and operated under regulatory standards set for wastewater treatment systems involving cooling lakes.
"No other wastewater or pollutant is treated in Belews Lake nor is allowed to be treated in Belews Lake," he said. "Except for temperature, the lake and any discharge into the lake must meet strict Clean Water Act and state water quality requirements."
As for Duke Energy’s interest in the rule, Craig said it was to ensure the “waste treatment exclusion” in the act applies to ash basins, cooling ponds and other components of the waste treatment system. "The company wanted clarity to ensure these systems can continue to operate under the same regulatory requirements as they have since 1979," when wastewater treatment systems were excluded from the act.
Officials with the EPA and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which issues permits for the lake, did not respond to messages and emails seeking comment for this story. Neither did the Edison Electric Institute, the national association of shareholder-owned electric utilities, which lobbied for the changes.
Belews Lake was created by Duke Power Co., now known as Duke Energy, in the early 1970s by damming Belews Creek to provide water for the Belews Creek Steam Station.
The station is one the Southeast’s largest coal-burning power plants, although recent changes give operators the option to also run on natural gas. It generates up to 2,240 megawatts, enough to bring power to nearly 1.8 million average homes at full load.
Lake water is used in the process, whether the plant runs on coal or natural gas. While lake water doesn’t come into contact with the station’s steam, it is returned to the lake at a higher temperature.
“Duke Energy discharges hot water into Belews Lake and if that heat is not adequately controlled, that affects the health of the lake and the fish in the lake,” Holleman said. The heat is the primary pollutant for the lake, he said.
That discharge was covered under the Clean Water Act before the revised definition of “cooling ponds” and putting the entire lake out of the act’s purview.
“This is an unprecedented change, to remove these lakes from coverage of the Clean Water Act, Holleman said.
But Duke Energy officials say changes have no real impact on how the company monitors the lake and that the state permitting process assures safety.
“We still have very, very strict state requirements to meet, so that doesn’t change, the lake remains protected,” Duke spokesman Bill Norton said.
Craig said the discharge into Belews Lake is primarily cooling water and possibly some stormwater.
Pollutants such as bromides, mercury, arsenic, selenium and chromium generated by the plant are diverted to the Dan River, which still remains under the protection of the Clean Water Act. Temperature limits also are placed on this wastewater.
“This change isn’t really going to change how this station is currently operated and how the station has been operated since coming online back in the ‘70s,” Craig said.
But Holleman said the Clean Water Act has played a vital part in ensuring Duke Energy cleans up when something goes awry.
“What worries us is will these assurances stand up when the rule is not written to protect the lake,” he said. Holleman cited the utility's pollution problems involving selenium leaking into Belews Lake in the 1970s and early '80s, and the 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River at the site of the utility's retired steam station in Eden, which was torn down in 2017.
The steam stacks from Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station are seen at Belews Lake from Humphrey's Ridge in Stokesdale, Wednesday, Sept. 3…
Shortly after the Belews Creek Steam Station was built, Duke Energy biologists determined that the selenium levels in its permitted discharge was impacting the fish in the lake. (See correction at end of story.) Within years, 17 of the lake’s 20 fish species were wiped out.
Holleman said the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, using provisions in the Clean Water Act, required Duke to change how it managed the contaminants.
“(By) applying the Clean Water Act, the coal ash pollution of the lake was greatly reduced over time by routing the discharge from the coal ash site out of the lake,” Holleman said. “So that’s an example of how the Clean Water Act can protect the lake.”
Duke Energy disputes that it was forced to make the change, citing a 1986 letter from the EPA stating that Duke acted in "a reasonable manner in finding a problem, bringing it to the attention of regulatory agencies ... and taking appropriate corrective actions."
The company also proposed and implemented a fish monitoring program, Norton said, which has led to a healthy fish population that has rebounded and is safe for consumption.
The act also was vital in forcing Duke Energy to move 12 million tons of coal ash submerged for years in a storage basin to a lined, on-site landfill, Holleman said.
The power company agreed to the plan in a settlement after the SELC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Stokes County and state branches of the NAACP and Appalachian Voices North Carolina environmental group. The lawsuit sought to force Duke Energy to move ash submerged for years in a storage basin to a lined, on-site landfill and clean up groundwater at the site.
The civil rights groups were involved because the coal ash site is near a predominantly African American community in Walnut Cove.
Duke has upgraded technology at the Stokes County plant so that all coal ash is handled in dry form — much of it recycled — and the basin is no longer in use.
Lawsuits such as this, where residents can directly sue, aren’t allowed under North Carolina law, Holleman said. “So the local community would not have the ability to enforce permit requirements like they do under the Clean Water Act,” he said.
The removal also opens the door for operations other than Duke to use the lake for wastewater purposes, Holleman said.
Norton said this was unlikely because Duke owns all the land surrounding the lake and would have to grant an easement from the power company to access the lake.
“We do not anticipate such a request, and any such entity would have to apply for state and federal permits, such as with the Army Corps of Engineers,” he said.
When he announced the rule changes in January, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters that states were still free to step in with state protections of newly vulnerable waterways if they chose.
And Duke spokesman Norton said even without the Clean Water Act provisions, the company’s activities are monitored and well-regulated by the state.
“There’s not just one tier of protection,” he said. “There were also state laws there that protected, that drove the decisions that we ultimately made (surrounding the coal ash disposal)."
Norton said that under the state regulations and permits, Duke has monitored Belews Lake since the mid-1970s, with surface water testing since 1977 and fish studies since 1976.
“We’re held accountable for what we say,” Norton said. “We use third-party labs that are certified, independently of us, on those test results. So when you have got that level of protection. You have the state watching out, you have independent labs doing the results, and then you’ve got federal rules as well.”
But Holleman said such rules can be influenced by the political winds — especially at the state level.
“Would North Carolina require something of businesses and industry and polluters that the federal government does not,” Holleman asked. "That’s always the hard question because of the political pressure that’s brought to bear on state agencies.
“The state agencies often are … reluctant to put strong requirements on polluters, particularly major business,” Holleman said. “It is really the backstop of the national Clean Water Act and the national EPA requirements that the state agencies rely upon in order to resist local political pressure.”
And he pointed out former Gov. Pat McCrory's ties to the company.
“You may remember the prior governor used to work for Duke Energy and he fought against requiring them to clean up their coal ash,” Holleman said. “The new governor’s administration is requiring them to clean up their coal ash. Well, who’s going to be the governor eight years from now? And who’s going to be the secretary of the environment?"
Josh Snow, owner of Reel-Livin Outdoor Adventures in King, fishes on Belews Lake while waiting for clients at the Pine Hall public boat launch…
Phillip and Nancy Ridge, who've lived beside Belews Lake since the 1970s, said they trust Duke Energy to protect it. The couple lives in a small mobile home park on West Ridge Circle, just yards away from its shoreline.
The couple said that the company has been a good steward of the lake and it doesn’t bother them that it’s no longer covered by the Clean Water Act.
Phillip Ridge, 79, said it’s in Duke Energy’s interest to use the best practices available in operating the facility.
“They’re down there now working on the dam,” he said. “They’re trying to keep everything up-to-date.
“Why would they mess up something they need,” he said. “I mean, that’s where they’re making their money.”
Nancy Ridge said she goes in the lake every summer, "all summer long," noting that it's safe. “That’s my exercise in the summer.”
Still, others who use the lake said they would rather see the additional protection offered by the Clean Waters Act.
“I think it’s a shame, people swim in this lake,” said Josh Snow, who recently formed Reel-Fishin Outdoor Adventures and runs fishing tours at the lake. “I think the people who use the lake ought to have a voice for it.”
Lewis Pritchard of Walnut Cove, who was out kayaking on the lake last week, said he’d rather see the act applied to the lake.
“I guess the Clean Water Act would help motivate them more,” Pritchard said. “I like to keep the lake pretty. I kayak a lot out here … and I eat the fish, too.”
Those activities are why, Holleman said, keeping the lake under the Clean Water Act is so important.
“It gives the local community power to protect their water resources when the state and federal government are not taking those actions,” Holleman said.