State environmental regulators have issued revised draft permits for a Southport power plant to discharge industrial wastewater and stormwater into the Atlantic Ocean just off Caswell Beach.

The permits tighten discharge limits and increases pollutant testing for CPI USA’s Southport plant, also known as Capital Power.

The result is better than before but may not be enough to protect the health of residents and the environment, several local and state environmental leaders said.

CPI runs an 88-megawatt electric generation station and sells power to Duke Energy. It also provides steam for the nearby Archer Daniels Midland citric acid plant north of Southport.

CPI discharges water into Duke’s nuclear plant cooling canal and has been operating under an administrative extension of an older permit for several years.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) decided to intensify CPI’s permit rules last year, and several local governments and environmental groups asked for a public hearing. Local leaders were surprised to learn that stormwater runoff from fuel piles and water used to transport boiler bottom ash residue were being decanted in giant concrete basins and discharged 2,000 feet offshore.

CPI burns old tires, creosote-treated railroad ties, other wood debris and coal to make electricity and steam. At a public hearing in November 2019, 21 people spoke and most expressed concerns about water and air discharges. The focus of the hearing, however, was the discharge of stormwater and wastewater. The plant’s air discharge permit comes up for review later this year.

Under previous rules, CPI could dewater bottom ash residue in the basins and discharge the water to the ocean. That has changed and bottom ash must be removed without direct contact to discharge water. Also, the company was formerly required to test discharge water for pollutants once every five years.

The new draft permit requires quarterly biological testing and annual chemical testing for pollutants.

A spokeswoman for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) said the group had not decided whether to challenge the draft permits. If there is no administrative challenge, the permits will be effective in mid-April.

“There are some improvements from the draft to this permit, but there are also concerns,” said Chandra Taylor of SELC. Taylor said her group was concerned about adequate containment of coal pile runoff in the event of heavy storms or a hurricane. She said it was also unclear whether CPI could discharge overwash from managing the bottom ash wastes.

Residents near the plant have concerns and Taylor said SELC is interested in hearing from them.

“There are some real questions as to whether the plant should continue to operate as it is, unrelated to the (discharge water) permits,” she said.

By way of resolutions, Oak Island and Caswell Beach asked for additional testing and hearings on CPI’s permits. Oak Island Council Member Loman Scott said he was encouraged by DEQ’s decision, but not satisfied that regulators have addressed all concerns.

“They did at least listen to us,” Scott said. “I still don’t think it’s enough.”

The Brunswick Environmental Action Team (BEAT) called the decision a partial victory for public health and environment.

“BEAT is thankful to the NCDEQ for hearing our concerns and responding to each of them exactly how our communities asked them to,” said president Pete Key of Oak Island. “We are also pleased that we could serve the community by bringing these critical concerns to the attention of local governmental leaders and the people they serve. None of these changes would have been possible without their involvement.”

The majority of the company’s estimated daily discharge of 411,500 gallons is cooling water, a CPI official said. The company was unable to detail how it will deal with proposed operational changes and how much those changes will cost as of press time. CPI employs 54 people, the company stated.