Flood Shuts Down N.C. Power Plant, Sweeps Waste Into River

Floodwaters inundate lake at North Carolina power plant, raising alarm

Floodwaters inundate lake at North Carolina power plant, raising alarm

Ms. Sheehan said floodwaters have submerged the 1971 coal-ash basin that sits next to Sutton Lake-a 1,100 acre cooling pond built to support coal plant operations.

Environmental groups and regulators scrambled Friday after the earthen dam at Sutton Lake breached in several areas, with water from the Cape Fear River also tipping into an on-site basin used to store coal ash.

Floodwaters topped the earthen dike at the northern side of Sutton Lake on Friday.

"What we don't know at this point is if any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River", said Mike Regan, secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Water has also crested over the steel retaining wall of a coal ash dump on the lake shore, Sheehan said.

"This shows that coal ash remains a problem in North Carolina, all the more so because Duke Energy is still refusing to clean up millions of tons of its coal ash from leaking pits that contaminate our lakes and rivers every day, not just during a hurricane", said Nicholas S. Torrey, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"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 DEQ said in a Friday afternoon statement, adding that the state planned to conduct drone flights over the crippled dam.

Friday's breaches came in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which hit North Carolina a week ago bringing record rainfall over days.

"It's a very unsafe situation, and we don't yet know the full extent of the risk", said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

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Sutton Lake is the former coaling pond for a coal-fired plant Duke retired in 2013 and replaced with a new generating station that runs off natural gas.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal at power plants and contains toxic elements like mercury, arsenic and selenium.

By Thursday, the Sutton Lake site had received more than 30 inches (75 cm) of rain from Hurricane Florence.

"Cenospheres are coal ash, so if cenospheres are moving into the Cape Fear River, then that means coal ash is moving into the Cape Fear River", he said. "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".

A road leading to a public dock on the reservoir, which is popular for fishing and boating, was blocked off on Friday by Duke Energy.

The current breach at the Wilmington site is separate from the rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill reported at the site last weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.

If the coal ash at the Sutton plan were to release coal ash, it would not be a total failure due to collapse.

At a different power plant near Goldsboro, three old coal-ash dumps capped with soil were inundated by the Neuse River. The group said a private lab would analyze samples.

The Cape Fear River is a source of drinking water in Wilmington, NC. 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.

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