The floodwaters flowed from Cape Fear River into the northern side of Sutton Lake, an 1,100-acre reservoir built in 1972 to cool the L.V. Sutton Power Station. That water caused breaches in the dam on the south end of the lake, which was flowing back into the river, Duke Energy said in a press release.
The Sutton site in Wilmington was home to a coal-fired power plant until 2013, when Duke replaced it with a natural gas power station. Duke dismantled the coal-fired plant by 2017, but the grounds contained about 7 million tons of coal ash in waste pits at the time of its closure. There are still two coal ash basins on site.
The flooding forced Duke to shut down the 625-megawatt natural gas plant, and the company is monitoring the coal ash pits.
Coal ash is a byproduct produced primarily at coal-fired power plants. It contains contaminants harmful to human health including mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
Heavy rain from Florence caused one of the coal ash landfills to partially collapse, Duke reported on Saturday. The incident likely caused coal ash to run off into Sutton Lake, a Duke spokesperson told the AP.
On Friday, Duke said it believes coal ash contained in one of the basins remains in place behind a steel wall that separates Sutton Lake from a site where the waste is still being excavated. That steel wall was under water, the company said, but an earthen part of the dam setting off the basin remained 2 feet above the surface.
Another type of coal combustion byproduct, cenospheres composed mostly of alumni and silica, has flowed from that basin into Sutton Lake and Cape Fear River, Duke said.
The second basin, which contains most of the sites ash, is about 10 feet from the floodwater and has not been affected, Duke said.
Shares of Duke Energy, which were higher before the news hit, rolled over and were down less than 1 percent Friday afternoon.
Hurricane Florence packed high wind and rain measured in feet to the Carolinas, followed by rising rivers and standing water in fields.
Florence made landfall on Sept. 13 as a Category 1 hurricane in a resort town just east of Wilmington, North Carolinas eighth-largest city. The city of more than 117,000 people has been cut off by floodwaters. At least 42 storm-related deaths have been reported in the region, according to AP.
David Fountain, president of Duke Energys North Carolina operations, told CNBC on Monday that the impact from Florence has been the most severe hes ever experienced.
“Ive lived in North Carolina my entire life, and Ive seen a lot of bad storms, a lot of bad hurricanes. But this is absolutely the worst,” Fountain said.
Property damage and disruption from Florence is expected to total at least $17 billion to $22 billion, but that estimate could end up being on the conservative end, according to Moodys Analytics.
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Duke Energy shut down a power plant in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday after a dam on a lake at the site breached, allowing hazardous coal ash into the nearby Cape Fear River, the company said.
It was not immediately clear how much ash was moving into the river. The extent of the release will depend on how quickly the breach can be stopped.
Well probably will never know how much has spilled into the river, said Avner Vengosh a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. Because the spill stems from large-scale flooding over a wide area, its difficult to calculate how much ash is entering the river.
Coal ash is the powdery substance that remains after burning coal. The Environmental Protection Agency links the substances that it contains — including heavy metals like arsenic and lead — to nervous-system problems, reproductive issues and cancer.
The facility that was shut down on Friday, Dukes L.V. Sutton plant, has been a growing concern since last week, when rains associated with Hurricane Florence caused a coal ash landfill at the site to erode, spilling ash onto a roadway. According to the company, 2,000 cubic yards of ash escaped but the spill was quickly contained.
Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, disputed that, saying at least some of the coal ash spilled last week entered the environment.
The release on Friday concerns the two unlined coal ash ponds on site, which contain a combined 2.1 million cubic yards of coal ash, according to a report prepared for Duke Energy this year. That amount of coal ash would fill the Houston Astrodome 1.3 times.
On Thursday, the Cape Fear overflowed its banks and breached a dike at the northern end of Lake Sutton, which also serves as a cooling pond for the plant. Lake Sutton sits between the river and the two coal ash ponds. That water is exiting Lake Sutton through the lakes southern edge, where a coal ash basin dating back to 1971 sits. From there it is flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Coal ash has received increased scrutiny since 2008, when the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the surrounding environment, triggering a cleanup that cost more than 1 billion dollars.
In 2014 Duke Energys Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, prompting the state to require Duke to close all of its coal ash ponds, a process that is not yet complete.
In May 2015, the United States Department of Justice announced a $102 million fine against Duke Energy after the utility pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its North Carolina facilities.
The fine included a $68 million criminal penalty and a $34 million for environmental projects and land conservation to benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia. Four of the nine charges resulted form the Dan River spill. The other violations were based on allegations of historical violations at the companys other operations.
The L.V. Sutton plant now burns natural gas, but until 2013 it housed a three-unit, 575-megawatt coal-fired plant. The coal ash from that operation remains on site.
Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the climate team. Before joining The Times in 2017, she covered science and the environment for Popular Science. @kendrawrites
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