Hurricane Florence Waters May Have Caused Another Coal Ash Spill

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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Record rainfall from Hurricane Florence has resulted in the burst of a lake dam, potentially washing chemicals from a coal ash dump into a nearby river.

More than 30 inches of rain proved too much for a lake damn near Wilmington, North Carolina, an area hit hard by Hurricane Florence. Overflow from Lake Sutton caused a breach of a steel dam meant to keep the water separated from an adjacent coal ash dump. Duke Energy, the company that oversees the site, could not rule of the possibility on Friday that some of the chemicals from the dump have escaped into the Cape Fear River.

Coal ash — the residue that’s left over when a coal-fired power plant produces energy — can contain toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and selenium. The residue is heavily regulated by the federal government, but the Trump administration has opened the door for state governments to manage their own coal ash waste if strict guidelines are met. (RELATED: Heavy Rains From Hurricane Florence Cause Coal Ash Spill)

The coal ash deposit near Wilmington is leftover residue from the coal-fired Sutton Plant, a 575 megawatt facility that retired in 2013 and has since been replaced by a gas-fired plant. Duke Energy employees have been monitoring the plant’s coal ash since Hurricane Florence hit the Carolina coast.

Environmental groups — longtime opponents of the coal industry– pointed to the incident as another example of why coal-fired generation is dangerous.

“You’ve got to hope that this hurricane will teach a lesson to utilities, and that the executive and legislative branches in North Carolina and South Carolina will take action,” Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement to Utility Dive. “I hope we don’t reap consequences of foolish decisions.”

Employees with Waterkeeper Alliance on Wednesday traveled to flooded dumps near H.F. Lee Power Plant — another retired coal plant in North Carolina — and collected samples of gray sludge found in floodwaters. A separate a lab company will analyze the collected samples.

In order to comply with North Carolina’s environmental mandates, Duke Energy plans to remove all of its coal ash pits by 2029.

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