Hurricane Florence rains trigger possible coal-ash spill into lake at Wilmington plant

A sportsman battles a largemouth bass at Sutton Lake in Wilmington in this file photo.
A sportsman battles a largemouth bass at Sutton Lake in Wilmington in this file photo. Mike Marsh

Environmental attorneys and a Cape Fear River advocacy group are looking closely at a possible Duke Energy coal ash spill near Sutton Lake in Wilmington.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy, in a news release Saturday night, blamed historic rains from Hurricane Florence for eroding the landfill, possibly letting coal ash reach the lake at the Sutton Power Plant.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette, with the advocacy group Cape Fear River Watch, said Sunday he is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of material, or enough to fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The majority of displaced ash was collected in a ditch and haul road that surrounds the landfill and is on plant property, Duke Energy officials said.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the landfill’s failure “illustrates the dangers of Duke Energy’s practice of disposing of coal ash near waterways throughout North and South Carolina.”

“After this storm, we hope that Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it to remove the ash from these unlined pits,” Holleman said in a news release Sunday. “We also hope that Duke Energy will take the necessary steps to ensure that its landfill at Sutton in Wilmington is secure and will not spill when there are storms, floods, or hurricanes.”

Duke Energy officials said they don’t think the spill will affect the environment. They could not say if any coal ash washed into the Cape Fear River or Sutton Lake.

Sutton Lake is a cooling pond that was constructed to support plant operations, the company said in a news release. The 1,100-acre lake next to the banks of the Cape Fear River is a popular fishing destination.

“Coal ash is non-hazardous, and the company does not believe this incident poses a risk to public health or the environment,” the release said. The company is conducting environmental sampling as well.

Site personnel are managing the situation and will proceed with a full repair as weather conditions improve. Ash basins, which are being excavated, and the cooling pond continue to operate safely, the release said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable during Tropical Storm Florence, a spokesman said Saturday night.

“As soon as it is safe to do so, DEQ will be onsite at the Sutton Steam Plant to conduct a thorough inspection,” DEQ Communications Director Megan S. Thorpe said. “Once the damage is assessed, DEQ will determine the best path forward and hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”

Duke Energy plans to close its seven North Carolina coal plants during the next 30 years, according to filings this month with state regulators, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Coal ash has been an issue for Duke Energy since a 2014 spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden, near the Virginia border. Since then, Duke has been seeking to close sites where it stores coal ash to comply with state law passed after the spill.

The company pled guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in May 2015 and has since made regular reports to a federal court-appointed monitor as part of its five-year probation.

The Waterkeeper Alliance noted in a news release Sunday that coal ash contains high levels of toxins and heavy metals, including arsenic, chromium and mercury. The Sutton coal ash ponds historically have discharged arsenic, selenium, mercury, antimony, cadmium, chromium, lead and zinc into Sutton Lake.

The alliance cited a 2013 U.S. Forest Service Research study that found thousands of fish in Sutton Lake had severe selenium-induced deformities, or had died because of selenium exposure.

Sutton Lake coal ash ponds have had problems before. Alliance officials noted the failure of a coal ash pond dam on Sept. 28, 2010, that released about 10 cubic yards of coal ash. Employees found the breach — estimated to be roughly 8 feet deep and 22 feet wide by 100 feet long — when they drove a truck into it.

“Regular thunderstorms lead to spills from Duke Energy ash ponds,” said Donna Lisenby, global advocacy manager at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Coal-fired plants in South Carolina remediated their ash quickly; Duke has dragged its feet. As climate change fuels more intense storms, these increasingly risky industrial waste sites must be removed from our river banks or we will continue seeing spills.”

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