Florence causes coal ash spills in North Carolina

Florence causes coal ash spills in North Carolina
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Flooding from Hurricane Florence caused a pair of coal ash spills from a site near a power plant in North Carolina.

Duke Energy Corp. announced the first spill at the L. V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington Saturday night, saying about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash had been released.

It said rains caused a slope collapse, displacing the ash, which contains heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, potentially into the nearby Cape Fear River. Coal ash is not considered hazardous, but is harmful to ecosystems and humans.

The volume is enough to fill about 180 dump trucks, or two thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“The majority of displaced ash was collected in a perimeter ditch and haul road that surrounds the landfill and is on plant property,” Duke said in a statement. The company reported the spill to federal and state authorities.

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Reggie Cheatham, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Emergency Management, told reporters Monday that the second spill occurred late Sunday at the same plant, and officials don’t know its volume.

But Duke took issue with the EPA’s characterization, saying what it described as a second spill was really just part of the first.

“This is all part of the same erosion event from heavy rains, but does not represent a second slope failure,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan told Bloomberg News.

Coal ash ponds, along with large farms and Superfund sites, have been among the highest public health concerns in the run-up to Florence and since its landfall.

The material is a waste product from burning coal for power and contains concentrated volumes of some of the harmful metals in coal.

The EPA in 2015 implemented the first federal standards for its disposal, but the Trump administration moved earlier this year to roll some of them back, including pushing some compliance deadlines.

Duke specifically has been under fire for coal ash disposal and storage. A pipe collapse in early 2014 at one of the company’s properties in North Carolina triggered a massive spill of coal ash into the Dan River.

Separately, Duke’s Brunswick Nuclear Generating Station near Southport, N.C., had an “unusual event” declared Monday due to the flooding, the lowest level of emergency classification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The event was declared simply because the plant is inaccessible. But the NRC said the plant still has external power to keep reactors and waste cooled, and staff and NRC officials remain on-site while the reactors are shut off.

— Updated at 3:45 p.m.