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Dam breach sends toxic coal ash flowing into a major North Carolina river

This drone photo released by Duke Energy shows flooding from the swollen Cape Fear River overtopping an earthen dike at Sutton Lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington, N.C. (Duke Energy/AP) (AP)

North Carolina floodwaters continued to inundate a 47-year-old basin of toxic coal ash alongside Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton power plant on Saturday, sending polluted waters pouring into a man-made lake and then into the Cape Fear River.

The rising waters also swamped a 625-megawatt natural gas plant at the site, forcing it to shut down. The water at the plant was at least six inches deep, Duke spokeswoman Paige H. Sheehan said. Video released by state regulators Saturday showed equipment and buildings at the plant poking up from a vast expanse of water.

The company said in a news release Friday that workers were moving “large stones and other materials” to help plug gaping holes in the dams and on Saturday added it was bringing additional construction materials from across the state. Sheehan said Duke has deployed booms with curtains below them to try to contain some of the leaking material.

The breakdown in the defenses at the Duke plant underscored how even though Hurricane Florence is over, rising river waters keep adding to the environmental mess left in the storm’s wake. There were at least 34 hog lagoons spewing feces and urine into the surrounding areas, according to state officials. Nine more were inundated by floodwaters, and 47 on the edge of overflowing.

"There is an urgent need for both hog lagoons and coal ash ponds to be removed from the flood-prone areas near our rivers and lakes before the next climate change fueled superstorm hits us,” Kemp Burdette, part of a network of environmental activists protection U.S. rivers, said in a statement Saturday.

Satellite photographs taken of Camp Lejeune by the U.S. Geological Survey show large black splotches spilled from major rivers into the ocean. The Environmental Working Group said the photos “demonstrate the consequences of concentrating confined animal feeding operations . . . in low-lying areas along sensitive flood plains.”

Fears about the situation at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton power plant near Wilmington have been growing since before Florence made landfall. Earlier in the week, rainfall from the storm punched holes in the wall of a separate coal ash landfill also near the former coal plant, which sits on the banks of man-made Sutton Lake and near the Cape Fear River, failed in several places. A special black membrane installed to contain the waste was torn open in at least two spots.

Duke Energy estimated last weekend that the storm had washed away more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal waste — enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks. The environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance said in a statement Saturday that breaches at the landfill “swallowed a bulldozer and a tractor.”

On Friday came more bad news. The company said the dam separating the Cape Fear River from man-made Sutton Lake, which holds water used to cool the power plant, suffered one large breach and several smaller ones. Meanwhile, a steel wall separating the oldest of two remaining coal ash disposal basins at the site was submerged by floodwater. The National Weather Service said water levels in the river would continue to rise into Saturday and stay above record levels into next week.

“We cannot rule out that coal ash is moving into the river,” Sheehan said in an email Friday.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had several teams monitoring conditions at the Sutton facility and remaining in close contact with on-site engineers. On Friday morning, the company notified state officials of a breach of between 100 and 200 feet at the south end of Sutton Lake. State officials were using drones to monitor the conditions at the site.

“While the state is currently 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 at their coal ash facilities,” Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email.

Pete Harrison, a staff attorney at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, went to the site of the spill Friday and traveled on the Cape Fear River by boat along with a member of the clean-water advocacy group Waterkeeper Alliance. He said water from Lake Sutton was “pouring out” into the river at several points.

Harrison said he and his colleagues saw plumes of water containing coal ash particles, some floating on the surface and some underneath. “These swirling plumes went on for miles, and we watched them form as they poured out of the lake,” he said.

Coal ash is what is left over after coal is burned in a power plant, and it contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium. The Sutton plant switched from coal to natural gas years ago, but the waste remains at the site. Farther inland, the company’s Lee power plant has three pits containing coal ash and covered earth and trees; heavy rains washed coal ash from those sites into the nearby Neuse River.

The issue of leaking coal ash is particularly fraught for Duke Energy. In February 2014, a coal ash pond at its Dan River Steam Station spilled as much as 82,000 tons of waste over roughly 70 miles of the Dan River. Federal prosecutors also revealed Duke Energy had been illegally discharging pollution from coal ash dumps into nearby waterways since at least 2010. In May 2016, Duke Energy settled criminal charges for $102 million. Since then, the company has been moving coal ash from waste ponds to more secure, lined landfills.

The company has tried to distinguish between the types of waste in the coal ash basins. Duke Energy said the waste material that had been found so far in the lake and river was a lighter material known as cenospheres — small glasslike beads aluminum and silica left over after coal combustion. The drone video from North Carolina state regulators also showed cenospheres in the water but the agency said they would probably be caught in vegetation and thus easy to recover.

However, toxic heavier metals often attach themselves to the cenospheres, and environmental groups argue that the distinction is not significant.

Harrison said Friday the material spilling from the Sutton plant’s ash ponds is coated with the kind of toxic metals that pose a serious public health risk.

“Cenospheres are the lightest form of coal ash,” said Harrison, who is temporarily based in North Carolina. “Just like coal ash, they are also loaded with all these other elements. They’re really no different in that regard.”

Earthjustice sampled cenospheres last week that had spilled from three flooded coal ash pits at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Plant near Goldsboro, N.C., Harrison said, as well as from sites in the state after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. In both cases, he said, they tested positive for toxic contaminants.

“For them to say cenospheres are not coal ash,” he said, “is like saying a poodle is not a dog."