Due To Recent Flood Events, Coal Ash Has Escaped Into The North Carolina Landscape — What Environmental Impact Has It Had?

On Friday, floodwaters busted the Sutton Lake Dam, which is connected to Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Plant in Wilmington, North Carolina. Environmentalists are concerned that the coal ash dump located behind the dam has escaped into the Cape Fear River.

Duke Energy had to shut down its Sutton plant on Sunday. The company claims that the coal ash hasn’t contaminated the Cape Fear River.

Gray muck floats on the Cape Fear River near the L.V. Sutton Plant near Wiilmington N.C. Credit: Peter Harrison / Earthjustice via AP

The ash containment pit at the Sutton plant was built in 1974, and it held approximately 400,000 cubic yards of ash. The area received more than 30 inches of rain due to Hurricane Florence.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the Cape Fear River Watch have been skeptical of Duke Energy’s claim, and are currently working on collecting data for a third-party analysis.

“Keep in mind, Duke sent their samples to their in-house lab. Until you have a third-party analysis, any analysis should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch.

Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group that had a boat on the river, took pictures of gray slicks in the water and they rinsed off a turtle they found caught in the muck.

Turtle being removed from gray muck along the Cape Fear River near the L.V. Sutton Plant. Credit: Peter Harrison / Earthjustice via AP

Duke Energy recently reported that arsenic and metal concentrations in the Cape Fear River has been slightly elevated following the Sutton flooding, but noted that there was no indication of coal ash entering the river.

Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in groundwater, and it is highly toxic when in its inorganic form. Duke Energy’s study on the Cape Fear River gave a test result of 1.11 thousandths of a milligram per liter of water. Although this doesn’t come close to reaching the concentration limit set by the state, 50 thousandths of a milligram, it is still higher than normal.

The levels of metals found in the river were more manageable, at 2.2 milligrams per liter on Friday when the dam was breached. Other contaminants found in the river included selenium, chromium, oil and grease; however, Duke noted that the contamination of these chemicals was well below permitted regulatory limits.