Florence Floodwaters Breach High-Risk Coal Ash Pond, Threatening Cape Fear River

Blanche Robertson
September 22, 2018

Duke Energy's L.V. Sutton Energy Complex from I-140 on September 21, 2018.

Duke Energy and state environmental regulators say it's possible that coal ash near Wilmington has spilled out into the Cape River from flooding after Hurricane Florence.

Floodwaters topped the earthen dike at the northern side of Sutton Lake on Friday.

That water has caused several breaches in the dam on the south end of the lake which is flowing back into the Cape Fear River that is already high from the hurricane.

Water has also crested over the steel retaining wall of a coal ash dump on the lake shore, Sheehan said.

Separately, company spokesman Paige Sheehan told Reuters they can not rule out the possibility that coal ash might have entered the Cape Fear River.

Floodwaters at the site were continuing to rise Friday.

However, conditions remain so bad more than five days after Florence made landfall that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said its inspectors have been unable to visit the hardest-hit areas or collect samples of the floodwater for lab testing. North Carolina's top environmental regulator said Friday that the extent of the potential environmental harm from the breach is not yet known. "Sutton Lake has spilled over into Duke's transmission yard, so they have evacuated their employees". The ash left over when coal is burned to generate electricity coal ash contains an array of components, including mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals.

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According to the National Weather Service, the Cape Fear River in Wilmington is supposed to peak Saturday around 8 p.m. Duke recorded more than 33 inches of rainfall from Hurricane Florence.

The current breach at the Wilmington site is separate from the rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill reported at the site last weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks. Coal ash collects at the bottom of basins, making it hard to determine when ash escapes from a site.

A road leading to a public dock on the reservoir, which is popular for fishing and boating, was blocked off on Friday by Duke Energy. The utility company paid $102 million in fines and restitution and pleaded guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations as a result.

The reservoir is a former cooling pond for the Sutton power plant and is adjacent to three large coal-ash dumps.

State officials said they also have received reports that the earthen dam at a hog lagoon in Duplin County had breached over the weekend, spilling feces and urine. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029.

If the coal ash pond at the Sutton plant were to release coal ash, it would not be a total failure due to collapse, as was the case at the Dan River Steam Station four years ago, where the ash escaped through an opening near the bottom of the pit.

Sheehan said Thursday that Duke is monitoring the site and that any release of coal ash appeared "minimal".

An environmental threat is also posed by human waste as low-lying municipal sewage plants flood. The group said the samples would be analyzed by a private lab to determine whether the gray muck contained coal ash. On Sunday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported that more than 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of partially treated sewage had spilled into the Cape Fear River after power failed at its treatment plant.

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