Dam breached by Florence floodwaters at power plant in North Carolina

Remigio Civitarese
Settembre 22, 2018

Charlotte-based Duke Energy said Friday that the flooding forced it to shut down its 625-megawatt natural gas power plant at the L.V. Sutton plant.

Duke Energy says a dam at a power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina has been breached, raising concerns that water contaminated with byproducts of burning coal could flow into the Cape Fear River.

Should the dam breach, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said on Thursday, the company believes there would not be a noticeable change in water levels on the Cape Fear River.

The floodwaters had also overtopped a steel retaining wall containing one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore.

Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said at a press conference Friday that it was unclear whether any coal ash had filtered into the river.

"While the state is now in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities", the DEQ said in a Friday afternoon statement, adding that the state planned to conduct drone flights over the crippled dam. North Carolina officials said that three of the lagoons have been breached, 21 had been flooded by nearby rivers, and 30 had overflowed. Sutton Lake has inundated Duke's transmission yard and the company has evacuated employees.

The current breach at the Wilmington site is separate from the rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill reported at the site last weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks.

Officials with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said they were aware of the breach, which they said was 100- to 200-feet long, and were monitoring the situation.

State inspectors were able to make it to Sutton on Tuesday and to collect samples from the area around the breached coal-ash landfill.

A road leading to a public dock on the reservoir, which is popular for fishing and boating, was blocked off on Friday by Duke Energy. In 2015, Duke agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029. Rivers are continuing to rise, and many parts of North Carolina remain under water.

If the coal ash pond at the Sutton plant were to release coal ash, it would not be a total failure due to collapse, as was the case at the Dan River Steam Station four years ago, where the ash escaped through an opening near the bottom of the pit.

Widespread flooding has also caused contamination by human and animal waste. On Sunday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported that more than 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of partially treated sewage had spilled into the Cape Fear River after power failed at its treatment plant.

Despite Duke's claims of no evidence of environmental harm to Sutton Lake, the company's own lab results show chemicals contained in coal ash were detected in wetlands immediately adjacent to the shoreline.

Staff from the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, visited the flooded dumps at the H.F. Lee Power Plant by boat Wednesday and took photographs and collected samples of gray sludge and water they said was washing into the floodwaters. The group said a private lab would analyze samples.

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