The nation's largest electric utility says it has been pumping wastewater from a coal ash pond into a canal that leads to the Cape Fear River since last fall.
Aerial photos released by environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance show Duke Energy crews pumping water from the coal ash ponds at the head of the river near the now closed Cape Fear Plant near Moncure.
The river feeds drinking water sources downstream.
WNCN Investigates first learned of the pumping last week and reported on it Sunday.
Monday, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told WNCN in a statement that regulators are trying to determine if the water released was treated or untreated. If it was untreated, that would be illegal.
Duke Energy said the ash basin system "is a treatment process." Meaning, the water being discharged could be considered treated.
The utility also said it has "monitoring requirements" where the ash basin discharge meets the canal, and where the canal meets the Cape Fear River.
Duke maintains that it was performing routine maintenance to lower water levels -- work that is allowed by permit. The company also said it began pumping in the fall of 2013, and it notified DENR in August before it began.
However, on Monday, DENR said inspectors discovered the pumping on March 11, the same day environmentalists say the agency was given the photos showing the pumping.
WNCN asked both agencies for interviews Monday to clear up the apparent contradiction and answer more detailed questions, however, both refused.
Waterkeeper Alliance, the group that took the photos, said the public has the right to know what is in its drinking water.
"I think the public has the right to know what is going in the drinking water," said Pete Harrison, the group's attorney. "We deserve to know what we are drinking. We deserve to know what's going into our environment."
The group also showed WNCN Investigates video that the group says shows leaking water from the Cape Fear Plant ash pond dams.
Meanwhile, newly-released documents uncovered by the Associated Press show Duke lobbyists pushed Republican lawmakers to add provisions that allowed Duke to avoid costly cleanups of contaminated groundwater.
The bill with the provisions was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, a former longtime Duke executive.
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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