Earth & Environment

September 21, 2018: Florence Releases Coal Ash

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 12:00 AM

A little over two months ago, on July 17, EPA Acting Director Wheeler issued a revival of former Director Pruitt’s attempt to relax regulations of coal ash storage facilities at coal-fired power plants.  An article in the Issues Watch eblast of July 20 (“Coal Ash Redux”) announced this dangerous move, and described the heavy metals and other toxic pollutants found in coal ash. Now Florence’s flooding has made the warnings about at least one of these dangerous sludge pits come true in North Carolina.  The Southern Environment Law Center reports that Duke Energy’s Sutton Power Station, near Wilmington, N.C., has experienced leaks of its coal ash pit into Sutton Lake.[1]  Sutton Lake is a large public lake used for recreational fishing and boating. It is also connected to the Cape Fear River.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette of @CapeFearRiver reported on September 16th that there were at least two sections of Duke Energy’s Sutton coal ash landfill overflowing into Sutton Lake. #HurricaneFlorence

As of 9:45 a.m., both breaches were “very large,” according to Burdette, with a “waterfall’ actively pouring out.  He reported that the discharge was continuing during Florence’s rainfall events, and said that he was concerned that the discharge would enter the Cape Fear River just north of Wilmington, NC.

Duke Energy did report a release of coal ash from the plant into Sutton Lake in the amount of 2,000 cubic yards of material—which the SELC says is enough to fill 150 dump trucks—but Duke officials said they did not believe the spill “will have an impact on the environment.”

Duke Energy has several other coal-fired power plants across North and South Carolina, many being affected by Florence’s floods.  All of these plants have coal ash storage areas, mostly unlined. It remains to be seen how much more of this poisonous muck will wash out of the pits as the flooding continues, ending up in drinking water and in fish that local people eat.  Relaxing regulations will enable still more environmental disasters across the country, but Duke Energy and other coal-dependent power companies will save a lot of money. But at what cost to public health?

— Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth and Environment Task Force, Public Policy Committee

Southern Environmental Law Center report, “Coal ash infrastructure fails in wake of Florence’s destruction”, Sept. 17, 2018.

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