Watchdog group uncovers a coal ash spill after hurricane flooding

Duke Energy said the leak would not be “significant.”

An substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash was found floating on the surface of the Neuse River in a layer more than an inch thick. CREDIT: Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance & Matt Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper/Sound Rivers
An substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash was found floating on the surface of the Neuse River in a layer more than an inch thick. CREDIT: Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance & Matt Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper/Sound Rivers

Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest utility, has been ordered to submit a post-flood plan for the storage ponds at one coal-fired power plant, after reports surfaced of coal ash residue contaminating a local waterway.

After flooding from Hurricane Matthew earlier this month, Duke initially told ThinkProgress that any overflow from its coal ash storage ponds was not “significant.” Then, last week, the company admitted to the state that “an unknown amount of coal ash” had been discharged.

On Wednesday, Waterkeeper Alliance, a local watchdog organization, published pictures of “a substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash” along the Neuse River in southwestern North Carolina. The following day, the state responded.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sent Duke a letter requiring the company to determine exactly how much coal ash had been released, come up with a testing plan for water and sediment near the basin, and assess any damage to the facility. DEQ had previously told reporters that the amount of spill would “fit in the bed of a pickup truck.”

Over a million tons of coal ash is contained in the storage ponds that were submerged underwater, temporarily becoming part of the river after the hurricane passed through.

“It is hard for me to understand how both Duke Energy and state regulators failed to notice such a large area of coal ash contaminating the Neuse River when they claim to have inspected these very ash ponds on Saturday,” Upper Neuse riverkeeper Matthew Starr said in a statement. Video of the contamination can be found here.

A huge area around and including Duke’s coal ash ponds were flooded, even while the company denied that any coal ash was escaping into nearby waterways. CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance
A huge area around and including Duke’s coal ash ponds were flooded, even while the company denied that any coal ash was escaping into nearby waterways. CREDIT: Waterkeeper Alliance

“The key here is use of the word ‘significant.’ The system did perform well. We knew there would likely be some erosion, which we saw, but not a significant release,” Duke spokesperson Paige Sheehan told ThinkProgress.

The state agency denied that it has changed direction on the case.

It’s “not accurate or factual to imply any ‘rethinking,’” North Carolina DEQ spokesperson Mike Rusher told ThinkProgress in an email. “We’re gathering and evaluating information from emergency response and inspections.”

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal. It contains lead, arsenic, and other toxins. Because coal-fired power plants are water-cooled, coal ash storage is generally located near rivers, in unlined ponds, raising the risk of water contamination from the coal ash.

Duke officials have said that the residue in the Neuse River is actually cenospheres, a part of coal residue made of alumina and silica, and that it is not toxic.

In 2014, one of Duke’s coal ash storage ponds failed, sending 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The cleanup took months and cost the company well over a $100 million in fines alone.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect Duke’s statements.