Pollution fears: Swollen rivers swamp ash dumps, hog farms
Michael Biesecker , Associated Press September 17, 2018
Flooded rivers from Florence’s driving rains have begun to swamp coal ash dumps and low-lying hog farms, raising pollution concerns as the swollen waterways approach their crests Monday.
Duke Energy said the weekend collapse of a coal ash landfill at the mothballed L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington, North Carolina, is an “on-going situation,” with an unknown amount of potentially contaminated storm water flowing into a nearby lake. At a different power plant near Goldsboro, three old coal ash dumps capped with soil were inundated by the Neuse River.
An Associated Press photographer who flew over eastern North Carolina’s Trent River on Sunday saw several flooded hog farms, their long metal buildings ringed by dark water. Such farms typically have large pits filled with hog urine and feces that can cause significant water contamination if breached. State regulators said they hadn’t received any reports of spills so far.
An AP analysis of location data from hog waste disposal permits shows at least 45 active North Carolina farms are located in 100-year and 500-year floodplains.
Federal forecasters predicted several rivers would crest at record or near-record levels by Monday, and high water could linger for days. Officials with the N.C. Park Council, and industry trade group, said farmers had prepared for the storm by lowering water levels in waste ponds and moving animals to higher ground.
At the closed Sutton plant, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said a full assessment of how much ash escaped from the water-slogged landfill can’t occur until the rain stops. She said there was no indication that any contaminants had reached the nearby Cape Fear River.
The company initially estimated Saturday that about 2,000 cubic yards (1,530 cubic meters) of ash were displaced, enough to fill about 180 dump trucks. Sheehan said the estimate could be revised later.
The coal-fired Sutton plant was retired in 2013 and the company has been excavating millions of tons of ash from old waste pits and removing it to safer lined landfills constructed on the property. The gray ash left behind when coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury.
Sheehan also said three inactive ash basins at the H.F. Lee Power Station near Goldsboro were under water.
State environmental regulators said they’ve been unable to inspect the Sutton landfill because of flooding.
Duke’s handling of ash waste has faced intense scrutiny since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated 70 miles (110 kilometers) of the Dan River in gray sludge. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029.
Environmentalists have warned for decades that Duke’s coal ash ponds were vulnerable to severe storms, potentially threatening drinking water supplies and public safety.
“Disposing of coal ash close to waterways is hazardous, and Duke Energy compounds the problem by leaving most of its ash in primitive unlined pits filled with water,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
He said he hoped “Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it to remove the ash from these unlined pits.”
Associated Press data journalist Angeliki Kastanis is in Los Angeles and writer Gary D. Robertson contributed from Raleigh.