Duke Ash Spill

Sutton Power Station hit by Hurricane Florence, situation monitored

Almost exactly one year ago to the day, we had Duke Energy’s ongoing saga of coal ash plants playing out against the backdrop of a catastrophic hurricane. Last year, the company was battling in court over coal ash practices, while helping its Florida customers recover from Hurricane Irma and announcing a major battery storage expansion at the same time.

The difference today is that this year’s storm hit one of those plants directly. Reuters reported early Thursday that floodwaters from Hurricane Florence had inundated Duke’s retired Cape Fear location, prompting an emergency alert.

The alert activated was “high-level”, but Duke officials have downplayed that term and its supplementary implications. Floodwaters from the nearby Cape Fear River reportedly overturned an earthen dike at the facility. Nearby Sutton Lake was inundated, as well—leading to immediate concerns of a breach in that lake’s dam—which is currently stable and being monitored by Duke officials with helicopters and drones, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan told AP reporters Michael Biesecker and Alan Suderman Thursday. Sheehan called it “an evolving situation”.

“Company employees notified state regulators overnight that the 1,100-acre (445-hectare) lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington was at the highest level of alert under its emergency action plan,” the AP reporters wrote today. “A copy of that plan reviewed by The Associated Press defines an Emergency Level 1 event as: ‘Urgent! Dam failure is imminent or in progress.’ ‘Flash flooding will occur downstream of the dam,’ the manual says. ‘This situation is also applicable when flow through the earth spillway is causing downstream flooding of people and roads.'”

Sheehan sought to quell those concerns as a worst-case scenario. Stressing that such measures and verbiage are in place to enable proper preparation, she said the company was in touch with local emergency management officials, but the high water levels meant “if the berm were to break there would be very minimal impact down river.” The spill, which could contain arsenic, mercury, and other chemicals, was deemed “non-hazardous” earlier this week.

This time last year, environmental groups from North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky demanded Duke release contact information for emergency responders and maps showing where coal ash would spill in the event any of the company’s containment ponds break. This is the latest in a saga dating back to 2010, when Duke was first accused of withholding pollution information. A major coal ash release in 2014 brought national media and a federal investigation into the picture. On Wednesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent notices of intent to sue on behalf of community organizations regarding 10 Duke Energy sites across North Carolina where aging earthen dams hold back coal ash next to rivers and lakes. All utilities are required to disclose this information.

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