Florence’s Floodwaters Breach Coal Ash Pond and Imperil Other Toxic Sites

The New York Times
Kendra Pierre-Louis, Nadja Popovich, Hiroko Tabuchi

"Surging floodwaters from Florence and its torrential rains, which experts link at least in part to climate change, have released coal ash – a byproduct of coal burning that contains mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances – into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The torrent has also overrun several lagoons of pig waste in the state. The mishaps amplified concerns about an array of danger zones including Superfund sites, chemical plants and the region’s large-scale hog farms.

On Friday breaches in a lake at the L.V. Sutton power plant in Wilmington, N.C., opened up, causing coal ash to enter the Cape Fear. North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality said it had taken water-quality samples on Saturday but that test results would not be available until later this week. Duke Energy, which owns the Sutton plant, said water tests conducted by the company on Friday showed “little to no impact to river water quality.”

Here is where the dangers lie across the hardest-hit states:

Coal ash ponds

Coal ash is the dusty residue that remains after power plants burn coal to generate electricity. The heavy metals that it contains are linked to respiratory illnesses and cancer.

Energy companies maintain that the way they store coal ash, in earthen pits mixed with water, is safe.

However, last week Duke Energy reported multiple breaches at a lake at its Sutton power plant, in Wilmington, N.C., that caused the inundation of an ash basin on the site. From there the water, which contained coal ash, flowed out to the nearby Cape Fear River.

The Sutton plant has two coal ash ponds, one dating back to 1971 and the other to 1984. The two ponds combined hold 2.1 million cubic yards of coal ash, according to a report prepared for the company. Only one was flooded. It is unclear how much ash has been released.

This was the second breach reported at the site. Shortly after Florence hit, Duke Energy reported a breach of coal-ash storage at the Sutton plant that displaced 2,000 cubic yards of material, the company said, an amount that would fill about two-thirds of an Olympic swimming pool.

Shortly after that, Duke Energy said, three ponds at a plant in Goldsboro, N.C., were flooded but not breached.

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