Quantcast

Coal Ash Was a Disaster in North Carolina Well Before Hurricane Florence — And Now It’s Even Worse

Insights + Opinion

Sutton coal ash spill, Sept. 21. Jo-Anne McArthur / Waterkeeper Alliance / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As people in North and South Carolina continue to confront flooding and other massive damage from Hurricane Florence, it's heartbreaking to watch them have to deal with yet another hazard: the toxic coal ash leaked from coal ash ponds and landfills in the region. Even more infuriating is the denial coming from the company responsible for that pollution in the first place—Duke Energy in North Carolina.


On Sept. 19, Duke Energy activated a high-level emergency alert at the retired L.V. Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, as Hurricane Florence–related flood waters from the nearby Cape Fear River overtook an earthen dike and Sutton Lake. That same day, the Neuse River flooded all three of Duke's coal ash ponds at the retired H.F. Lee coal plant in Goldsboro.

On Sept. 21, Duke reported that dams at both the north and south end of Sutton Lake had been breached by floodwaters from Florence. In addition, floodwaters have overtopped a retaining wall between the lake and one of the unlined coal ash dumps at the site. Coal ash was observed in the lake, and Duke acknowledged it's possible that coal ash is flowing into the Cape Fear River.

Our friends at the Waterkeeper Alliance took photos and videos of coal ash in several waterways. Yet, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of its ash ponds, hiding behind the fact that coal ash which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum and chloride—is not designated as a hazardous waste.

Jo-Anne McArthur / Waterkeeper Alliance / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan claimed in a recent statement that, "It is a very common misconception that ash is toxic, but routine toxicity tests on our basin water continue to demonstrate it's not."

You have got to be kidding me. It's jaw dropping and infuriating to me that utility executives are still claiming coal ash is harmless after all the disasters of recent years—from massive coal ash spills, to the health problems plaguing workers who cleaned them up, to the hundreds of other communities home to coal ash sites where families living with polluted air and water are paying the ultimate price for this tired old lie. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other illnesses.

The Sierra Club and our allies have worked for years to force cleanup of these sites, both by pushing for stronger federal and state safeguards, and through litigation and organizing at the local level. Represented by our friends at the Southern Environmental Law Center, we even secured a Clean Water Act settlement that required Duke to move its ash from unlined pits at the Sutton plant to a lined landfill. Unfortunately, that work wasn't completed fast enough to prevent some of the damage—and even the lined landfill was also breached by the hurricane, underscoring that while some methods of storing coal ash are better than others, the only true solution is to generate power with clean energy and stop creating coal ash altogether.

Carolina residents have long warned Duke Energy, state officials, and the public about these coal ash landfills being a disaster waiting to happen—and many of the ash sites had already leaked several times long before Florence came ashore. The coal ash sites are frequently near low-income communities and communities of color, as CityLab's Brentin Mock documents in these two powerful articles about Hurricane Florence and the long-time environmental justice fights in the Carolinas.

There is no completely safe way to store toxic coal waste, or to mine and burn coal, that doesn't threaten communities, our waterways, and our climate. Knowing all the problems that coal ash causes, Duke needs to stop burning coal and retire all of its coal plants soon. Duke Energy should also take greater advantage of the abundant and affordable clean, renewable energy sources and phase out its use of unnecessary fracked gas plants. And the EPA should strengthen our federal coal ash safeguards, rather than gutting them as the Trump administration is now doing.

Hurricane Florence should be Duke Energy's wakeup call to remove its ash from all of its unlined, leaking coal ash pits next to waterways and take the necessary steps to ensure that all of its landfills are secure as possible and won't contaminate communities—not only when there are massive storms but also from everyday leaching into our groundwater.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less