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Coal ash may be flowing into river upstream from downtown Wilmington, NC

Hurricane Florence continues to cause toxic emergencies one week after landfall.

The flooded power plant north of Wilmington, North Carolina was shut down overnight on Friday. (CREDIT: Duke Energy press kit)
The flooded power plant north of Wilmington, North Carolina was shut down overnight on Friday. (CREDIT: Duke Energy press kit)

Coal ash from a retired power plant could be spilling into the Cape Fear River upstream from Wilmington, North Carolina, according to the Associated Press Friday morning. Floodwaters also caused a power plant to be shut down overnight.

On Thursday, Duke Energy issued a “high level” emergency alert from Florence’s floodwaters spilling into the north end of a cooling pond, called Sutton Lake, that could contain some of the hundreds of tons of coal ash which spilled from an adjacent landfill.

One day later, on Friday, the company said the dam separating Cape Fear River from the cooling pond on the southern end had breached, spilling back into the river — Cape Fear River water levels have been rising steadily due to Florence’s historic rainfall.

A map of Lake Sutton, which sits adjacent Cape Fear River. (Credit: Google Maps)
A map of Lake Sutton, which sits adjacent Cape Fear River. (Credit: Google Maps)

Here is aerial footage of the flooding, captured by local station ABC 11. It starts at the very bottom channel southeast of Sutton Lake and zooms out looking east. Much of the topography in the above photo is underwater.

According to the AP, the company acknowledged that “coal ash may be flowing into the Cape Fear River,” and that “floodwaters also had overtopped a steel retaining wall containing one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore.”

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So, coal ash from this large dump next to the lake, in addition to whatever was in the lake from the previous spill, threatens to flow back into the river.

Duke Energy said in a statement that cenospheres — small particles left behind by the combustion of coal — “are moving from the 1971 ash basin to the cooling lake and into the Cape Fear River.” It also said that there is no visible ash in the cooling lake.

“Overnight flooding” has also, according to Duke Energy, caused the company to shut down the combined cycle natural gas power plant on the site of the old coal plant.

On Thursday, the company pushed back on press reports that significant amounts of coal ash had flowed into Sutton Lake from a spill caused by a collapse in a coal ash landfill on the site. It said water tests found that there was no threat posed to health or the environment, but some cenospheres were floating on the lake.