Toxic coal ash from a shuttered Duke Energy plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, was released from a primitive dump as heavy rains from Hurricane Florence lashed the coast.
As of Monday, the city of Wilmington was inaccessible by land due to widespread catastrophic flooding in the city and surrounding areas, so Duke Energy and state environmental officials haven’t determined how far the spilled coal ash – enough to fill about 180 dump trucks – has migrated.
According to the Associated Press, the toxic coal ash from Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Power Station “likely flowed into the Cape Fear River.” With waterways throughout the state several feet above flood stage, the spilled coal ash could be carried and deposited across North Carolina’s coastal communities.
Coal Ash, the byproduct of coal burning, contains a multitude of toxins detrimental to the environment and human health, including arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals.
Widespread flooding through the Carolinas brought by Hurricane Florence has called into question the ability of utility plants and other big polluters to contain their hazardous waste in a severe weather event.
At least two other of Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants in North Carolina are likely to be compromised by Florence.
The H.F. Lee Power Station near Goldsboro has three inactive ash basins that flooded into the Neuse River during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Duke Energy capped its old coal ash basins there with soil and vegetation to prevent erosion, but they could become inundated again by Florence floodwaters, according to the AP.
Duke Energy’s W. H. Weatherspoon Power Station near Lumberton, flooding a nearby swamp that overflowed into the cooling pond. The Lumber River rose more than 11 feet above flood stage Sunday, putting the floodwaters near the top of the earthen dike Duke Energy built to contain the plant’s coal ash dump.
In 2014, a drainage pipe collapsed under a 27-acre waste pit at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station near Greensboro, flooding 70 miles of the Dan River with 82,000 tons of coal ash. The ensuing environmental disaster put Duke Energy under intense scrutiny and led to an agreement between the utility and the state mandating the cleanup of all its coal ash dumps throughout North Carolina by 2029.
Duke Energy had been excavating millions of tons of coal ash from its L.V. Sutton Power Station and moving it to lined landfills under the mandate when Florence struck, the AP reported.
Environmentalists have been raising concerns for decades about Duke Energy’s weak environmental controls, warning that its coal ash dumps throughout the state threaten drinking water supplies and public safety.
“Disposing of coal ash close to waterways is hazardous, and Duke Energy compounds the problem by leaving most of its ash in primitive unlined pits filled with water,” a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center told the AP.
“In this instance, it appears that Duke Energy has not done enough to ensure that its new Wilmington landfill safely stores coal ash. 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.”