Environmentalists fear coal ash spills from flooding

Posted October 12, 2016 4:31 p.m. EDT
Updated October 13, 2016 5:11 a.m. EDT

— Thousands of gallons of water flowed out of a cooling pond at a retired Duke Energy power plant on Wednesday after part of the retaining wall on the 545-acre pond gave way.

Sky 5 first captured video of the breach at the H.F. Lee Plant on Wednesday morning, and Duke and Wayne County emergency officials later acknowledged the situation.

Duke officials had stated repeatedly in recent days that flooding along the Neuse River after Hurricane Matthew had had very little impact on the coal ash basin and the cooling pond at the Goldsboro plant.

"Ash and cooling pond dams at our Carolinas’ facilities continue to operate safely," the company said in daily news releases.

Later, spokeswoman Erin Culbert issued a statement noting the 50- to 60-foot break in the wall holding in the estimated 1.2 billion gallons of water in the pond, which was used to cool equipment at the coal-fired power plant before it was taken out of service in 2012.

"There is water still coming into the cooling pond from the Neuse River through the spillway, and now there is water leaving the cooling pond though the opening in the basin wall," Culbert said.

Duke officials said they expect the water from the cooling pond to add less than 1 inch to the rising levels of the Neuse.

"The active ash basin is not impacted by this incident and continues to operate safely," Culbert said.

Still, environmentalists were upset that Duke appeared to be downplaying the risks of the flooding to the ash pond, noting the earthen dams surrounding Duke's coal ash ponds are similar to the one that gave way at the cooling pond.

"This water in the Neuse River is chewing up everything that it passes, flowing at a very high rate, and it will cause erosions of anything," said Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.

But Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart said state regulators required Duke to reinforce the coal ash pond earlier this year.

"Duke did give us some pushback, by the way, over the summer, but they did finish the work, and I'm very happy that our engineers forced that," van der Vaart said. "So, it's a different construction than the cooling pond is."

Starr and Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, said the ash ponds at the Lee plant suffered extensive damage in similar flooding after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Despite extensive flooding in the Lumberton area, Duke officials said the ash ponds at the retired Weatherspoon Plant there also weren't affected by the high water.

Dead livestock and animal waste are another concern in the floodwaters.

An estimated 100,000 chickens drowned in Wayne County alone, and Starr said hog waste lagoons are overflowing.

"When the water recedes, it'll go toward the river," he said.

Van der Vaart said no lagoons have breached so far, but some have flooded.

"The good side of this is there's a tremendous amount of water flowing through this area, so any exchange is going to be vastly diluted," he said.