Published: Sat, September 22, 2018
People | By Leon Thompson

Hurricane Florence: Floods breach dam and may spill toxic ash into river

Hurricane Florence: Floods breach dam and may spill toxic ash into river

Holleman said Friday's events, specifically regarding coal ash, were avoidable and that Duke should resolve in the coming days to move all coal ash from basins like those next to Sutton Lake.

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 from the Cape Fear opened several breaches overnight in the earthen dam at Sutton Lake, a 1,100-acre (445-hectare) reservoir at the power plant.

Should the dam breach, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said on Thursday, the company believes there would not be a noticeable change in water levels on the Cape Fear River.

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

Sheehan described the incident as a "developing situation" and said the company can't rule out that ash might be escaping and flowing into the river.

She said Earthjustice is concerned the floodwaters have risen above the level of the coal ash ponds which means any water in the lake and flowing into the river could also be contaminated.

In its Friday announcement, Duke said water remains more than 10 feet from the 1984 ash basin's dike, which to this point has been stable.

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But Lisa Evans, a senior attorney specializing in hazardous waste for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said cenospheres are part of coal ash and that its unlikely that part of coal byproducts would spill but not other potentially harmful substances. Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and other toxic metals.

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.

Duke estimated that the storm had washed away more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal waste - enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks.

There are two coal ash basins on the site, one from 1971 and another from 1984.

Security personnel for Duke blocked access Friday to Sutton Lake Road, which leads to a public dock on the reservoir, a popular local destination for boating and fishing. The utility company paid $102 million in fines and restitution and pleaded guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations as a result. Sheehan, the Duke spokeswoman, said that any release of coal ash at the Goldsboro site appeared "minimal". It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029.

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. "While the state is now in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities", the department said in a statement.

Staff from the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, visited the site by boat on Wednesday and took photographs and collected samples of gray-colored sludge and water that they said was washing off into the floodwaters. The group said a private lab would analyze samples. Last Sunday, 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of partially treated municipal sewage spilled into the Cape Fear River after a power failure at the sewage treatment plant.

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