On Thursday morning, almost a week after Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, the storm’s floodwaters overran a lake which had been flooded by an unknown amount of coal ash earlier in the storm. Residents now risk coal ash-polluted water flowing back into a river upstream of Wilmington.
The Associated Press reported that Duke Energy, the power company that runs the retired coal power plant which generated several large dumps and landfills of toxic coal ash on the banks of the Cape Fear River, “activated a high-level emergency alert” Thursday morning.
The river overtopped an earthen dike separating it from Sutton Lake, which is a former cooling pond from the retired coal plant. This took place just a few miles upstream from Wilmington, North Carolina, the city which has seen the worst of the storm.
A Duke Energy spokesperson told the AP that the earthen dike did appear stable in spite of the river waters flooding over it into the lake. With the power plant retired, the lake is now a destination for recreational fishing and boating.
Over the weekend, one breach acknowledged by Duke (and another disclosed by the EPA but denied by Duke) caused the landfill to dump at least 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash into Sutton Lake, which is enough to fill 180 dump trucks.
A Duke Energy press release from Wednesday claimed no effect on water quality but did acknowledge the presence of cenospheres — coal combustion byproducts — in Sutton Lake.
Now, with the floodwaters mixing into Sutton Lake, residents face the alarming possibility of coal ash-polluted water flowing back into a river upstream of Wilmington.
This is not the only site of coal ash dumps being taken away by floodwaters. On Sunday, the AP reported that “three old coal ash dumps capped with soil were inundated by the Neuse River,” at a different site farther north, closer to Greenville.
In addition to coal ash, Florence’s rains have also caused 30 hog manure lagoons to overtop and spill feces and urine into the environment. Three lagoons have breached, with a total 132 sites at risk as of Thursday afternoon.
Beyond the long-term effects of coal ash and pig waste flowing into the water system, the toxins and contaminants could pose risks for residents already hit by the storm. Some Florence refugees resorted to bathing in the storm’s floodwaters when their shelters or homes ran out of clean water.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken steps to relax regulations on coal ash ponds and hog waste lagoons.
Before Florence hit, President Trump said that his administration was “all ready” to respond to the storm, and told reporters, “we’re getting tremendous accolades from politicians and the people.”
Right now, everybody is saying what a great job we are doing with Hurricane Florence – and they are 100% correct. But don’t be fooled, at some point in the near future the Democrats will start ranting…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2018
As the storm finished dumping record levels of rain on the Southeast, Trump bragged that “everybody is saying what a great job we are doing with Hurricane Florence.”
CORRECTION: This article initially stated that tons of coal ash had spilled into Sutton Lake, and has been updated to reflect the fact that the quantity of coal ash spilled into the lake over the weekend is unknown. Duke Energy is unable to determine how much of the 2,000 cubic meters (which is almost a thousand tons) of coal ash it said spilled from the landfill made its way into the adjoining ditch, and how much made its way into the lake, though it acknowledged some went into the lake. Testing samples from local officials and environmental groups may take a week to be analyzed.