As floodwaters persist, threats from Florence grow

Flooding continues across much of eastern North Carolina and South Carolina more than a week after Hurricane Florence made landfall. In Conway, South Carolina residents have constructed temporary berms in an effort to protect their homes. (© Sean Rayford)

More than a week after Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast, the devastating reality is that more flooding is expected as rivers continue to rise – and communities are just beginning to assess the damage, particularly the toxic threats from flooding at coal ash and industrial hog waste sites..

Soon after Florence made landfall, Duke Energy reported a coal ash breach at a landfill at its Sutton facility near Wilmington. For years Duke has stored hundreds of thousands of gallons of coal ash, the toxic byproduct from burning coal, in unlined lagoons alongside the Cape Fear River. Duke estimated the initial breach released enough coal ash to fill about 150 dump trucks. Then, the situation grew more worrisome when flood waters from the Cape Fear River and Lake Sutton overtopped the wall of one of Duke’s coal ash lagoons, sending coal ash materials into Sutton Lake, a public lake used for fishing and recreation, and the Cape Fear River.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is testing water quality near Sutton, as are our partners on the ground like Cape Fear River Watch.

DEQ is posting regular updates on conditions, including testing results and aerial footage on its website.

As Senior Attorney Frank Holleman told the Energy News Network:

We need to be extremely concerned because we have a major river system overflowing in an unlined coal ash storage pit. As we sit here with floodwaters raging, all we can really do is watch and wait and hope and pray.”

SELC sued Duke Energy over coal ash pollution at the Sutton plant in 2013 and, following a settlement, Duke has initiated cleanup at Sutton even while litigation moves forward on six other North Carolina coal ash sites.

In South Carolina, the flooding Waccamaw River posed a threat to coal ash stored at the former Grainger Station in Conway. Santee Cooper has excavated most of the site’s coal ash to lined landfills away from waterways, following a settlement with SELC and partners, but the remaining toxic coal ash posed a threat and led to dramatic images of officials scrambling to put sandbags on top of the dikes.

Florence has provided a stark reminder of the continuing danger posed by coal ash.

We call on all utilities to finally learn a lesson from this latest crisis,” said Holleman. “Stop the litigation and lobbying, and instead more forward with a comprehensive plan to remove all coal ash from unlined waterfront pits as quickly as possible, so that we can move past these dangerous practices and toward a solution.”

Another devastating impact of Florence is North Carolina’s concentrated animal feeding operations, as floodwaters mixed with massive hog waste lagoons and thousands of hogs were killed in the flooding. Initial assessments from state officials report at least 32 waste lagoons were flooded. Just two of the flooded lagoons were estimated to release seven million tons of hog manure, raising the risks of major contamination to local waters. Millions of chickens were also killed in the storm.    


All this is unfolding as many North Carolinians return home to assess the damage to their homes and businesses, and flood risks continue in some areas while major roadways remain closed.

As North Carolina Office Director Derb Carter stated: 

There will be time to assess coal ash spills, flooded industrial hog operations and lagoons, sewage spills, and how climate change is contributing to sea level rise and the frequency and intensity of storms. Now the focus should be on recovery and restoring the lives of the many North Carolinians affected by the winds, rains, and flooding.”

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