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Near Duke’s flooded coal ash basin, a gray film floats in the Cape Fear River

Take a close look at a potential coal ash spill on the Cape Fear River

News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
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News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

A gray film clung to the banks and trees of the Cape Fear River on Saturday near a section of the river where Duke Energy said floodwaters could be spilling toxic waste.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy confirmed on Friday that floodwaters from Hurricane Florence spilled into a coal-ash storage pond near Wilmington, The News & Observer reported.

The Cape Fear River had been rising for days, on the back of trillions of gallons of water that Florence deposited in Eastern North Carolina, and Duke had issued an emergency warning Thursday that a breach was likely.

The 47-year-old coal ash pond is separated from the Cape Fear River by Sutton Lake, a public fishing lake used as a source of water to cool a coal-burning power plant that was shut down in 2013. Because of rising waters, the river, lake and ash pond are now part of one water system, but Duke has installed a steel barrier at the ash pond to prevent the waste from moving in the reverse direction back into the river.

“It’s all mixing,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan told the N&O on Friday. “We know that water is being discharged from the ash basin.”

There are numerous breaches in the dam that separates Sutton Lake and the Cape Fear River, but the biggest breach is between 100 feet and 200 feet across.

On Saturday, the Waterkeepers Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, took reporters from The N&O in a boat to the site of the dam breach between Sutton Lake and the Cape Fear River. Water from Sutton Lake was emptying into the swollen Cape Fear rapidly and a road that circles the lake had collapsed from the water.

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The earthen berm around Sutton Lake, which contained coal ash from a nearby coal ash pond, collapsed in many places due to the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Nearby, a gray film floated around the banks of the river, which Matt Butler, a program director for Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that monitors the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River Basins, identified as the lighter parts of coal ash. The heavier components, he said, sink to the bottom or are suspended in the water.

“I think this is a very significant spill,” Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear riverkeeper, said in an interview Saturday. “There were numerous breaches that have all contributed to this ... given the aerial photography and the satellite imagery that we have seen it looks like a lot of coal ash was kind of pulled down to those breaches and out to the Cape Fear River. That is certainly what we saw yesterday when we were on the water.”

But Duke Energy disagreed that ash is contaminating the water, suggesting that Burdette may have seen nontoxic byproducts floating in the water. The company also said the ash basin, which contained an estimated 400,000 cubic yards of ash before the storm struck, was partially empty because it was in the process of being excavated as part of Duke’s 2016 settlement of lawsuits filed by environmental groups to get the sites cleaned up.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal at power plants and contains toxic elements like mercury, arsenic and selenium. The ash is also used as construction fill to build roads, but utilities produce more ash than is needed by the construction industry and store it in open-air pits filled with water.

Coal ash entered the public consciousness here in 2014, when a Duke ash impoundment failed and released 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River in Eden, about 100 miles northwest of Raleigh. In 2015, Duke agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

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Matt Butler, a program director for Sound Rivers, takes News and Observer journalists to view the damage done to Sutton Lake as a result of Hurricane Florence on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

On Friday, Sheehan told The N&O that Duke believes that the coal ash has remained at the bottom of the flooded ash basins, saying there is no visible coal ash in Sutton Lake.

”Our visual inspections do not indicate that coal ash was being released but we are conducting water sampling to learn more. The regulator is doing the same,” Duke spokeswoman Sheehan told The N&O by email. “Also worth reminding you that we are excavating Sutton, which is what environmentalists wanted, and putting the material in a lined coal ash landfill on site.”

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A dam that separated Sutton Lake from the Cape Fear River breached this week as a result of Hurricane Florence. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Duke Energy had also installed a steel wall to hold the ash in place. The wall, however, was submerged by floodwaters on Friday, according to Duke. Before the flooding, the ash level was at last five feet below the top of the steel wall, Duke said.

The Waterkeeper Alliance is also sending water samples from the river, taken on Friday, to an independent lab for analysis. It expects those results to be returned early next week, Butler said.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said Friday that it did not know yet the extent of the mixing of coal ash from Sutton Lake with the Cape Fear River.

“What we don’t know at this point is if any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River,” Michael Regan, director of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said at Gov. Roy Cooper’s press briefing Friday. “We plan to conduct flyovers and/or partnering with the Department of Transportation to look at driving capabilities to see if we can ascertain that.”

DEQ did promise to investigate the situation in a statement, saying: “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 by their coal ash facilities.”

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) released a statement on Saturday saying that the coal ash spill is not affecting its drinking water.

“The raw water intakes for CFPUA’s drinking water system are located more than 20 miles upstream from the Duke Energy coal ash spill, above Lock and Dam #1,” the company said in a statement. “The spill cannot reach the intakes.”

Duke Energy also said earlier this week that one of its coal ash sites in Goldsboro, on the Neuse River, was also experiencing flooding. Activists monitoring the river have claimed that coal ash there is releasing into the river.

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

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
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