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The Associated Press reports that this is the first time the $59 billion electricity company has sought permission to have North Carolina consumers pay part of its costs of disposing the waste, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power.
By Molly Taft, Laura A. Shepard and Monika Sharma
Alongside Highway 401 in northern North Carolina is a 21st-century twist on a classic rural scene. A few miles outside of Roxboro, sheep graze among 5,000 panels at the Person County Solar Park, keeping the grass tidy on the rural installation.
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The record-breaking flood of the Neuse River inundated three inactive coal ash ponds for five days last week from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro, North Carolina. The flooded ponds are unlined and uncovered, containing more than 1 million tons of coal ash spread over more than 170 acres in a layer 4 to 10 feet deep.
On Oct. 14 at 4:28 p.m., before the flood waters had completely receded from the flooded ash ponds, Duke Energy reported a spill of an undetermined amount of coal ash into the Neuse River to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center. On Oct. 15, Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality personnel inspected the inactive ash ponds by foot, claiming they "determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck."
On Oct. 17, the flood waters had receded enough to allow the Waterkeeper Alliance rapid response team to launch a boat in the Neuse River to inspect for coal ash releases. Later that afternoon, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper discovered a second coal ash spill coming from the inactive ash ponds at HF Lee. The coating of ash on tree branches high above the receding flood waters proved the spill had been ongoing for almost a week.
Duke Energy and DEQ claim their representatives identified the second spill on Oct. 17 as well, independent of Waterkeeper Alliance's public disclosure of the spill on Oct. 18. The Waterkeeper Alliance rapid response team questions the claim that both DEQ inspectors and Duke Energy staff traveled to the location of the second spill by boat on Oct. 17 and identified the white substance floating on the water and coating the trees.
To the contrary, Duke Energy reportedly told WNCN on the evening of Oct. 18 that it had not yet conducted water sampling from a boat because state regulators had not deemed it safe to boat on the flooded river. This directly contradicts subsequent claims by Duke and DEQ that they had observed the spill by boat on Oct. 17.
"The agency that should be a watchdog protecting the public is acting more like a PR firm trying to protect Duke Energy's reputation," Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Harrison said. "This is the same agency that only a year ago stood up in court and tried to block an agreement between Waterkeeper and Duke that requires Duke to remove all the coal ash from the ash ponds that flooded."
Since we exposed the second spill on the afternoon of Oct. 18, Duke Energy has continued to insist that the spilled material is "not coal ash," falsely claiming that cenospheres are distinct from fly ash, the primary constituent of coal ash.
However, scientists at Appalachian State University used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to visualize samples of the spilled coal ash cenospheres, and tested the particles for contaminants using Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX).
The EDX analysis detected dangerous heavy metals attached to the fly ash cenospheres, including antimony and cobalt.
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of coal ash cenosphere found in Neuse River on Oct. 17.Dr. Guichuan Hou, PhD, Director of Dewel Microscopy Facility, Research Associate Professor of Biology, Appalachian State University
Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) graph of chemicals in or on a coal ash cenosphere that was found in the Neuse River on Oct. 17. The analysis detected antimony, cobalt, and thallium, which can be toxic to people and aquatic life.Dr. Guichuan Hou, PhD, Director of Dewel Microscopy Facility, Research Associate Professor of Biology, Appalachian State University
Duke Energy has previously reported elevated levels of both these contaminants in groundwater monitoring wells located around the inactive ash ponds where the coal ash spill occurred. Throughout the week, Duke Energy attempted to characterize cenospheres as "not coal ash" and "inert" and "not inherently toxic." These talking points carefully avoid acknowledging what the EDX analysis confirms: the spilled coal ash cenospheres, though composed largely out of silica and aluminum, have more dangerous contaminants attached to them.
Harrison called the mischaracterization "a shameful attempt by Duke Energy to trick the public and cover up a large coal ash spill that the company failed to identify and/or failed to report."
Duke Energy even acknowledges on its website that "cenospheres are a form of fly ash." Duke's failure to report the spill may have even been a violation of the company's probation sentence, which it received last year after pleading guilty to federal crimes involving its mismanagement of coal ash at the H.F. Lee facility, among others.
Because Duke Energy did report a spill of coal ash on Oct. 14 (the purported pickup truck load), and the company has emphatically denied that the material discovered by the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper is coal ash, it is clear that material discovered in the river on Oct. 17 was a separate and distinct spill from the one Duke Energy reported on Oct. 14. Based on currently available information, Duke Energy has still not reported the second spill to then National Response Center.
On Oct. 19, the day after our organizations exposed the second coal ash spill, the DEQ claimed its "staff determined on Monday that material found at the H.F. Lee facility in Wayne County is not coal ash," and accused Waterkeeper Alliance of "falsely reporting" the coal ash release. Both Duke and DEQ claimed, without analyzing the spilled material, that it was harmless cenospheres comprised of just aluminum and silica.
"After adopting Duke Energy's indefensible position that the material was not coal ash and requiring no further action from Duke on Wednesday, DEQ has now done an about face, admitting last night that cenospheres are fly ash and ordering Duke to investigate the spills further," Matthew Starr, Sound Rivers' Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said.
"The DEQ bureaucrats must have woken up yesterday with the embarrassing realization that the state Coal Ash Management Act they're in charge of implementing defines cenospheres as coal ash," Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance said.
"Now DEQ seems to be changing its tune and agreeing with what we've been saying all along: Duke Energy is responsible for another coal ash spill into the Neuse River. Unfortunately this one looks like a lot more than a pickup-truck's worth of ash was spilled."
Waterkeeper Alliance and Sound Rivers have discovered a large coal ash spill into the Neuse River from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro, North Carolina. A substantial but undetermined amount of coal ash was found floating on the surface of the river in a layer over one inch thick. See the video below:
The spill came from at least one of three inactive coal ash ponds containing more than 1 million tons of exposed coal ash. The ponds had been submerged by Hurricane Matthew flood waters for more than seven days until flood waters receded over the weekend. Fly ash coated tree branches as much as seven feet above the river surface, indicating the spill began no later than last Tuesday, when the water level reached a record flood stage.
Waterkeeper Alliance and Sound Rivers discovered a large quantity coal ash spill into the Neuse River from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee facility, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro. Pete Harrison / Waterkeeper Alliance
Independent microscopic analysis confirmed the white material is fly ash particles known as cenospheres, a waste product of coal combustion.
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, said:
"This spill is easily visible to anyone in a boat. The area looks like a winter wonderland of toxic coal ash as it has coated the water and trees. 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."
On Oct. 15, Duke Energy issued a press release stating:
"Site inspections at the H.F. Lee Power Plant in Goldsboro, N.C., today confirm there was only very minor erosion of material from an inactive coal ash basin on the site.
The majority of that material, which includes coal ash, remained very close to the inactive basin, on the berm or a few feet away on the basin roadway. The state team that inspected the facility determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck."
"When a raging river floods over 1 million tons of coal ash, you're obviously going to get more than a pickup truck's worth of ash polluting the river," said Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney Pete Harrison.
"It was very troubling to discover such a large amount of ash in the river, especially knowing that untold amounts of ash have been washing out of these ponds for more than a week now. It's baffling how Duke Energy could be so oblivious to such an obvious spill and how state regulators continue to look the other way when it comes to Duke's coal ash problems."
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.Pete Harrison / Waterkeeper Alliance & Matt Starr / Upper Neuse Riverkeeper / Sound Rivers
Four of five retired coal ash ponds at the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro, North Carolina were inundated for at least 7 days. The submerged ponds contain more than one million tons of coal ash, spread in a layer between four and ten feet thick across an area the size of 130 football fields. In a 2015 site assessment, Duke Energy reported high levels of toxic heavy metals in the flooded ponds, including arsenic, antimony and thallium.
Last week at the H.F. Lee facility, Duke Energy failed to identify a breach in a cooling pond dam the size of a school bus for as much as 24 hours before a local news helicopter spotted the collapsed dam and reported it to officials.
It all began Wednesday morning when Duke Energy issued a statement claiming that the "ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely," but then helicopter footage from Raleigh's local television station WRAL showed that one of the dams had been breached.
On Thursday, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert confirmed to the Charlotte Business Journal that the company found out about the breach after WRAL contacted Duke about a half-hour after their statement came out and shared its video. Culbert said a Duke inspection crew had flown over the area earlier in the morning and, at the time, the dam was intact and showed no signs of stress. After they saw the video, the company put out an update acknowledging the damage at the dam.
The breach at the main cooling pond is visible on the right of the photo and is releasing to the Neuse River, which is outside of the frame on the left.Duke Energy
"We are really grateful for their good timing which allowed us to respond and put our emergency protocols into effect," Culbert said.
Donna Lisenby of Waterkeeper Alliance said this incident proves Duke Energy was "asleep at the switch when it was supposed to be monitoring the safety of dams at the H.F. Lee facility during record setting floods."
"They weren't aware of a 50-foot wide breach in the cooling pond dam until notified by a TV crew. How is it possible for a company with helicopters actively flying over dams and hundreds of engineers to miss a 50-foot-wide breach? Apparently, one small WRAL news crew is more competent and better at monitoring the safety and integrity of Duke Energy dams than all the hundreds of Duke Energy employees and contractors combined," Lisenby exclaimed.
Duke Energy said the 545-acre man-made reservoir that was breached does not contain coal ash and supplies cooling water to power plants at the site. It said the active ash basins are not affected by this incident and continue to operate safely.
"We are giving this our fullest attention," said Regis Repko, senior vice president of Fossil-Hydro Operations. "We are assessing what resources we need and will position repair materials so we can respond quickly once conditions are safe to do so."
Waterkeeper Alliance said they remain very concerned about the integrity of Duke Energy's ash pond dams as the river recedes over the next week.
"This failure likely happened because the river has begun to recede, which is when structural problems often develop," Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, and Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said Wednesday. "Like so many of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds across the state, the cooling pond at Lee has a long history of structural problems—these are disasters waiting to happen."
In addition to concerns at Duke Energy's coal ash ponds, environmentalists are keeping an eye on floodwaters that have washed over factory farms in eastern North Carolina following the storm.
Millions of chickens are feared dead after at least a half-dozen poultry houses were found completely flooded and tens of thousands of carcasses were seen floating the water in Cumberland and Robinson counties.
[This breaking news is an update to a post earlier today on EcoWatch: Millions of Chickens Feared Dead at Factory Farms in Wake of Hurricane Matthew]
Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper are responding to and documenting the breach of a 1.2-billion-gallon cooling pond dam at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant.
The breach occurred today just minutes after Duke Energy issued a statement claiming that the "Ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely; in fact, we've been pleased with their good performance during the historic flooding Hurricane Matthew brought to eastern North Carolina."
Pete Harrison, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, and Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, released the following statement:
"When families are being threatened by some of the worst flooding in North Carolina's history, they should not also have to worry about Duke Energy's dams collapsing.
"This failure likely happened because the river has begun to recede, which is when structural problems often develop. Like so many of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds across the state, the cooling pond at Lee has a long history of structural problems—these are disasters waiting to happen.
"Minutes before the dam collapsed on the cooling pond, Duke Energy issued a statement declaring it was operating safely. Duke continues to claim the dam of a 120-acre coal ash pond at Lee is operating safely, even though the river has only begun to recede. The same ash pond suffered extensive damage after flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. We remain very concerned about the integrity of the ash pond dams at Lee as the river recedes over the next week.
"It has been more than two years since the Dan River disaster, and Duke's coal ash continues to sit behind rickety dams on the banks of flood-prone rivers all across the state. Three ash ponds at the Lee plant, totaling 160 acres, have been completely submerged since Sunday."
In response to Waterkeeper Alliances breaking news, Greenpeace organizer Caroline Hansley said:
"Duke Energy can attack environmental groups all it wants, but the fact remains that it is misleading the public and the people of North Carolina about the safety of its dams, and Governor McCrory is letting the company get away with it- again. As the flood waters from the devastating Hurricane Matthew recede, we need a Governor who will put people's safety and access to clean drinking water before the interests of his previous employer, Duke Energy.
"Duke Energy has a terrible track record when it comes to protecting the safety of North Carolina's waterways and drinking water. In the two years since the Dan River coal ash disaster, Duke Energy has fought efforts to clean up leaking coal ash pits which threaten the health and safety of nearby communities. Instead of cleaning up its hazardous messes, Duke uses its political influence with its previous employee, Governor McCrory, allowing the company to leave 70 percent of its toxic coal ash leaking across the state.
"Hurricane Matthew proves again that Governor McCrory will always put corporate interests before the people of North Carolina."
Norway's central bank announced on Wednesday that the Norwegian Government's Pension Fund, worth $900 billion, will no longer invest in Duke Energy.
This decision is the result of an investigation by the Council on Ethics for the pension fund, which found that Duke Energy's failure to adequately respond to its leaking coal ash impoundments in North Carolina constituted "an unacceptable risk of severe environmental damage."
Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina in February 2014. The spill was the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.Waterkeeper Alliance
Based on its assessment, the council recommended that Duke Energy be excluded from the fund on ethical grounds. Nearly 4.7 million Duke shares and bonds, valued at $545 million, have been sold by the Norwegian Pension Fund.
In May 2015, I presented data and information to the Norwegian Parliament and Council on Ethics about the extensive and ongoing water pollution from Duke Energy coal ash ponds, advocating that they sell Duke Energy stocks for ethical reasons.
Waterkeeper recently sent a data packet to Norway emphasizing that Duke had not stopped ongoing leaks of heavy metals into drinking water supplies and plans to leave 70 percent of its coal ash in leaking ponds in North Carolina.
I am thrilled that the Council on Ethics determined that Duke's abysmal performance and severe environmental risk still posed by Duke Energy's leaking ash ponds warranted a special divestiture.
Duke Energy joins the list of many companies whose performance is so unacceptable to the Council of Ethics that they are black-listed as unsuitable for investment by one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.
Waterkeeper Alliance will continue to present to major institutional shareholders of coal companies to inform them of the unacceptable environmental risk of leaking ash ponds into drinking water supplies. Until this industry finally stops its recalcitrant and illegal behavior, we will continue to advocate for divestment from these major polluters all over the world.
North Carolina environmental regulators have cited Duke Energy for violating the conditions of a wastewater permit after it illegally dumped an estimated 61 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into a Cape Fear River tributary, according to Waterkeeper Alliance.
"Duke says it is 'accepting full responsibility' for the Dan River spill," said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette. "How are we to believe them when they have been deliberately pumping their toxic waste into the Cape Fear River, including on the very same day millions more gallons of sludge were also spilling into the Dan River as a result of Duke's carelessness."
"Duke Energy has had such a cozy relationship with NC regulators and legislators for so long they don't even think twice about breaking the law with respect to their poisonous coal ash pollution," said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Peter Harrison.
For decades all across America, coal-fired power plants have dumped tons of toxic pollutants into public rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters. On a toxicity-weighted scale, discharges from coal-fired power plants account for over one half of all toxic water pollution in the U.S. The pollutants dumped by coal-fired power plants are among the most toxic heavy metals listed by the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.
The Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, NC, is a prime example of a coal-fired power plant with a long history of groundwater pollution, surface water contamination and government failure to prevent harm to public waterways.
Underneath the sand and pine trees that surround Sutton, an unseen plume of toxic heavy metals has migrated out of the unlined ash ponds into groundwater. Monitoring well data from the site show the ash ponds have caused numerous pollutants to exceed their respective standards, including:
- Arsenic at 34 times the standard
- Manganese at 47 times the standard
- Iron at 27 times the standard
- Boron at four times the standard
- Sulfate more than three times the standard
- Thallium at three times the standard
- Selenium at more than twice the standard
- Total Dissolved Solids at twice the standard
Unbeknownst to most of the people living in Wilmington, NC, this hidden toxic witches brew of contamination is flowing towards public water supplies that provide drinking water to the community of Flemington. These wells are operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and are located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds.
Public water supply wells located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds. Public records show that polluted groundwater is flowing towards these wells. For decades, neither the U.S. EPA nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources have required the utility to clean up of the groundwater contamination. Photo credit: Dot Griffith
Groundwater assessments prepared by Progress Energy and submitted to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have found that the contaminated groundwater flows in the direction of the Flemington community wells at a rate of between 109 to 339 feet per year. In 1994, DENR’s Division of Environmental Management Groundwater Section explained that the groundwater flow at the Sutton site is “substantially influenced by the pumping activities of the New Hanover Co. well field [i.e., the Flemington wells]” and that “[t]hese pumping activities may result in a groundwater flow pattern that moves from the lake and ash ponds toward the well field.”
Indeed, a recent report prepared by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health, Public Water Supply Section for the water system served by the Flemington wells assigned their “Inherent Vulnerability Rating,” “Contaminant Rating” and “Susceptibility Rating” the highest risk rating and listed the Sutton facility numerous times as a “Potential Contaminant Source” for the wells. The report also confirms that many of the highly contaminated groundwater wells at Sutton are within the area that contributes groundwater to the Flemington wells.
This situation also raises an environmental justice issue. Achieving environmental justice involves identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of federal programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations. Here, failure to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act, to the detriment of the low-income Flemington community, is an environmental justice concern.
The other huge problem caused by decades of untreated coal ash waste being dumped into Sutton Lake is the accumulation of selenium in fish. Decades of sampling reveals that selenium concentrations have increased dramatically over time, such that in recent years the selenium concentrations in the surface water reached levels that cause reproductive failure of fish and waterfowl and have far exceeded those levels in the lake sediments and in fish tissue itself. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) determined that the sediment and fish tissue concentrations represent a “High” hazard. Unsurprisingly, the most recent published assessment of the lake by WRC noted that largemouth bass in Sutton Lake were in poor condition, and that from 2008 to 2010, the abundance and size of the largemouth bass population declined by 50 percent.
Sutton Lake is an extremely popular fishing location. It is frequented both by sport fishermen and by subsistence fishermen, who catch fish that are eaten by themselves and their families. Despite the fact that untreated coal ash sluice water, coal pile runoff, chemical metal cleaning wastes and other wastewater is discharged directly into the public waters of Sutton Lake, the public is encouraged to fish there. As selenium levels rose in fish in recent years, the state of North Carolina could have informed the public that the fish in Sutton Lake are in poor health. But in actuality boat ramps and fishing piers were recently improved to provide even greater public access and allow more people to catch and eat the fish out of Sutton Lake.