Duke shuts natgas plant due to Florence floods, coal ash leak feared


Water flows from the Sutton cooling lake exiting breach at south end back to river at the L.V. Sutton Power Station plant near Wilmington, N.C., in a photo released by Duke Energy on September 21, 2018.

A dam breach in North Carolina is threatening to pollute a large river with toxic coal ash from a power station.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said Friday that floodwaters continue to overtop an earthen dike at the north side of Sutton Lake, a 1,100-acre reservoir at the L.V. Sutton Power Station.

Duke also said it can not rule out the possibility that coal ash from another plant is flowing into nearby waters.

Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said at a press conference Friday that it was unclear whether any coal ash had filtered into the river.

She said Earthjustice is concerned the floodwaters have risen above the level of the coal ash ponds which means any water in the lake and flowing into the river could also be contaminated.

Sheehan said the 1971 ash basin was about 50 percent excavated before Florence dumped more than 30 inches of rain into the open pit.

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State regulators were awaiting the results of their own testing before determining whether there were any violations of clean-water-quality rules, said Megan Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency. They said in a statement that water from the Cape Fear River was flowing into Sutton lake and then back into the river and that water was close to both coal ash basins on the property but there doesn't appear to be any structural issues.

State officials said they have received reports that the earthen dam at one hog lagoon in Duplin County had breached over the weekend, spilling feces and urine.

A landfill that was under construction at the site ruptured over the weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks. Coal ash collects at the bottom of basins, making it hard to determine when ash escapes from a site. Sutton Lake is now used for public recreation, including fishing and boating.

At the H.F. Lee Power Plant near Goldsboro on Thursday, three old coal-ash dumps capped with soil were underwater after flooding from the Neuse River.

Staff from the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, visited the site by boat on Wednesday and took photographs and collected samples of gray-colored sludge and water that they said was washing off into the floodwaters.

Despite Duke's claims of no evidence of environmental harm to Sutton Lake, the company's own lab results show chemicals contained in coal ash were detected in wetlands immediately adjacent to the shoreline. The group said a private lab would analyze samples. "While the state is now 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 department said in a statement. In the Sutton facility, the ash is largely settled at the bottom, while water at the top is mixing with the Cape Fear River. On Sunday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported that more than 5 million gallons of partially treated sewage had spilled into the Cape Fear River after power failed at its treatment plant.