Published: 2018-09-20 14:40:00
Updated: 2018-09-24 12:53:04
Posted September 20, 2018 2:40 p.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2018 12:53 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Water from the swollen Neuse River has completely flooded the tree-covered coal ash basins at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro, raising concerns among environmental groups about contamination downstream.
The Waterkeeper Alliance documented and reported the flooding Wednesday by boat after inspecting about a half-mile area near the Lee plant, which surrounds an elbow of the Neuse River as it winds through Wayne County. The three older inactive storage sites there are covered by soil and vegetation, including tall trees. They hold 1.3 million tons of ash, a byproduct containing heavy metals like mercury and arsenic left over after burning coal for power.
"As the Neuse rises, it comes into contact with those inactive ponds and actively erodes and dislodges the coal ash – which is at the surface, you can see it – and it becomes an active spill," said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, who inspected the basins Wednesday.
He said all three inactive sites were "completely underwater."
The Neuse River has been at a major flood stage since the weekend, following a torrential downpour from Hurricane Florence that dumped more than 20 inches of rain over parts of the river basin. Levels are dropping, but the National Weather service forecasts continued flooding in the area through next week.
Starr said he's concerned that receding floodwaters will further erode the storage basins, contributing to the pollution.
Duke Energy Thursday confirmed the flooding at the inactive basins at Lee, and said site inspections revealed coal ash nearby.
"We'll learn more as flood waters recede, and we’re prepared to take steps needed to address it," Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton said in an emailed statement.
Megan Thorpe, a spokesperson with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the energy company had been in contact with state regulators, but she could not confirm conditions at the facility until regulators inspect the site. Thorpe said the agency planned to get staff to the Lee plant Thursday.
Thorpe said Duke reported coal ash on the access road outside one of the basins, but it's unclear how much of the contaminant has escaped into the river's floodwaters.
"There is no way to accurately quantify how much coal ash is being dumped into the Neuse River," Starr said. "Any estimate would be inappropriate for anyone to make."
Starr said the group inspecting the sites took water quality samples and expect to have the results in the coming days.
Flooding after Hurricane Matthew caused another spill at the Lee plant in 2016. Norton said the release amounted to a truckload of coal ash and caused "no measurable environmental effects."
But Starr said Duke Energy has learned little from previous incident and hasn't yet moved to excavate the ash at the aging basins, a requirement that resulted from a lawsuit by environmental groups including the Waterkeeper Alliance.
"Not a single shovel of coal ash has been removed from that facility since Hurricane Matthew, when they experienced another spill," Starr said. "It's past time to start removing that constant threat to the Neuse and nearby communities."
New state laws stemming from a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River have forced Duke Energy to make plans to clean up the ash basins, but the company sought to claw back costs of that cleanup from customers with a rate hike. State regulators this year allowed Duke Energy to use planned rate increases for cleanup already in progress, but will require them to request future costs later.
Environmental groups plan to appeal the ruling.
The spill at Lee was the second one prompted by Florence's heavy rainfall.
Over the weekend, Duke Energy said a dam breach at its Sutton plant near Wilmington released 2,000 yards of soil, water and ash – enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool – into a perimeter ditch. Some of the ash may have reached Sutton Lake, a cooling pond at the retired plant, but the company said that the 33 inches of rain the area has received made it difficult to know how much.
As of Thursday, Duke Energy also said floodwaters from the Cape Fear River had inundated Sutton Lake, triggering a high-level emergency alert at the facility amid fears of a potential breach of the dam.
"We continue to monitor the situation with drones to quickly react to an evolving situation," Norton said in a statement.
The company said a dam breach at the lake, which does not store coal ash, "would not have a measurable impact on the downstream areas because they are already inundated by the river."
But shortly after news of the alert at the dam broke Thursday, the Sierra Club criticized the energy company for downplaying the dangers of a breach at the site, which sits near coal ash storage ponds.
"We hope Hurricane Florence is the wake-up call for Duke to remove its ash from all of its unlined, leaking coal ash pits next to waterways, and take the necessary steps to ensure that all of its landfills are secure and won't contaminate communities, not only when there are massive storms, but from everyday leaching into our groundwater," the Sierra Club's Dave Rogers said.
Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan claimed in a statement last week that "the U.S. EPA has repeatedly studied coal ash and determined that it is non-hazardous." As evidence, she pointed to the federal agency's decision to regulate coal ash under a section of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for non-hazardous waste.
"It is a very common misconception that ash is toxic, but routine toxicity tests on our basin water continue to demonstrate it's not," Sheehan said in a statement.
The EPA's website notes that without proper management, components in coal ash like mercury, cadmium and arsenic "can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air."
Starr said the environmental impacts of those heavy metals – both in the environment and on human health – show the company is being dishonest about the risks of its basins.
"They're doing such a disservice to North Carolina and the environment," Starr said. "As a native North Carolinian, someone who has a family here, someone who works to protect the environment, it's really disheartening."