Duke Energy confirms new coal ash spill in North Carolina

Duke Energy reported over the weekend that enough coal ash had spilled near one of its Wilmington power plants to nearly fill up an Olympic-sized swimming pool — and that a second coal ash site near Goldsboro was experiencing flooding but hadn’t spilled yet.

But Wednesday night, environmental activists who are monitoring some of the company’s coal ash ponds around Eastern North Carolina said the Goldsboro site had started releasing coal ash into the surrounding environment.

The Goldsboro site “is now completely underwater,” and within the site, “all three ponds are washing coal ash into the Neuse River,” wrote Donna Lisenby, the global advocacy manager for the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Coal ash is the heavier byproduct of coal burning that settles at the bottom and for decades has been stored in open-air pits filled with water. The ash contains toxic substances like mercury and arsenic that can pose a public health risk if released into the environment. The EPA says that “without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air.”

Duke Energy’s Sutton coal ash site near Wilmington after Hurricane Florence. Kemp Burdette Cape Fear Riverkeeper / Waterkeeper Alliance

A spokeswoman for Charlotte-based Duke acknowledged Thursday that flooding had spilled “a small amount” of ash and cenospheres, another byproduct of burning coal for power.

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Company inspectors examined the Goldsboro ash pit and noted the flooding was “as expected.”

“We’ll learn more as flood waters recede, and we’re prepared to take steps needed to address it,” Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said. “In our past experience with Hurricane Matthew, only a small amount of ash and cenospheres was displaced with no measurable environmental effects.”

State regulators from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality were on their way to inspect the site Thursday, and the agency couldn’t immediately confirm the extent of any spills or other damage.

After Hurricane Matthew caused a spill at the Goldsboro coal ash pond, which is the H.F. Lee site, Duke Energy made improvements there in an attempt to mitigate future flooding and spills. Duke is also planning to excavate the coal ash at the site and move it to a location less susceptible to flooding, although the company has until 2028 to do so.

But the Neuse River in Goldsboro is flooding after Hurricane Florence, nearly reaching the record levels set two years ago by Hurricane Matthew. And activists from the Waterkeeper Alliance say the improvements at the site have not been enough to stop the coal ash from spilling into the surrounding area.

Lee Neuse.JPG
Ash-colored ring on trees along the Neuse River downstream from the H.F. Lee facility in Goldsboro on Sept. 19, 2018 shows how high the waters rose during Hurricane Florence. Waterkeeper Alliance

“I spent pretty much all day out there yesterday,” Matt Starr, who is the Neuse Riverkeeper for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said in an interview with The News & Observer Thursday morning.

“We explored about a half mile of this area — there’s roughly five miles of inactive coal ash ponds — and we’re seeing just many different points of erosion causing the spills to happen,” he said.

Starr said he and others alerted both DEQ and Duke Energy about what they had seen, and he’s hoping for fast action.

Duke Energy previously acknowledged a different coal ash spill at an ash landfill construction site near Wilmington during Hurricane Florence. But officials said that “cleanup work has already begun” at its Sutton site in Wilmington, and that there’s no evidence the spill threatened the safety of nearby Sutton Lake, a popular fishing and recreation spot.

“Water quality remains well within state permit standards designed to protect people and the environment,” Duke Energy said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Duke Energy also issued an emergency warning Thursday morning at its Sutton plant, due to ongoing flooding at the site, although Culbert said the main threat was to a cooling pond that does not hold coal ash.

Megan Thorpe, a spokeswoman for DEQ, said state inspectors were also heading to the Sutton site in addition to the H.F. Lee site in Goldsboro.

“Sutton’s cooling pond is overtopping; Duke tells us they are trying to inspect the dam at H.F. Lee by boat, and we are working to get staff there as quickly as possible,” she said in an email.

Hog lagoons also spilling

Flooding at Duke power plant sites wasn’t the only environmental concern getting DEQ’s attention Thursday.

The agency also updated the number of hog lagoons that are structurally damaged and seeping into the environment, flooded or near flooding.

Hog lagoons are large outdoor pits in which swine waste is mixed with water and stored to be broken down by bacteria into organic byproducts. North Carolina has 3,300 permitted lagoons, collecting waste from 9.3 million hogs.

DEQ raised the number of hog lagoons with structural damage from five to six. Also, it reported that 30 lagoons are overflowing into surrounding areas — up from 21 on Wednesday. And 75 more have fluids within 3 inches of the rim, up from 67 on Wednesday.

The number of compromised lagoons has risen daily as flood waters engulf and overflow the man-made swine waste impoundments. The waste contains high concentrations of salmonella, E. coli and coliform bacteria that can cause severe illness when ingested by people.

The information on lagoon leakage is self-reported by independent farmers and large agricultural companies who contract with the farmers to supply pigs for their meat processors. The Department of Environmental Quality has not visited the sites yet for an independent assessment, hampered by both the lack of available staff and the flood waters.

A brief history of NC coal ash

Duke Energy maintains that coal ash is not hazardous when properly managed. The company was responsible for one of the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history in 2014, when its plant on the Dan River in Rockingham County spilled thousands of tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s waterways north of Greensboro.

Duke pleaded guilty to federal criminal offenses in 2015 because of that spill and was ordered to pay $102 million, according to The Charlotte Observer. The company was also sentenced in 2015 to five years of probation.

The state government also threatened Duke with an additional $25.1 million civil fine — which was only half of what one high-ranking state environmental regulator wanted to charge, the News & Observer reported — but the company did not end up paying that much.

Instead, the administration of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory worked out a settlement with Duke for $7 million, the News & Observer reported in 2015. McCrory had been a Duke employee for nearly 30 years before entering politics and had been criticized for perceived close ties with the company, although he denied any wrongdoing.

Duke Energy also paid the state a separate $6 million fine for other coal ash related issues, in 2016, according to CBS News.

Since 2014, Duke Energy has spent nearly $550 million on coal ash cleanup around North Carolina, and earlier this summer the state utility regulatory board gave Duke permission to pass nearly 90 percent of those costs onto its customers, instead of its shareholders, by raising people’s electrical bills, the Charlotte Observer reported.

However, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein is fighting that decision in court, telling the Charlotte Observer that “consumers shouldn’t have to pay for Duke’s mismanagement of coal ash.”

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran
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