Floodwaters in eastern North Carolina are still rising, but so far haven't swamped any of Duke Energy's active coal ash ponds. But environmentalists worry about older, dry, coal-ash basins that did flood. And they're concerned about how animal waste and dead livestock will affect water quality.
Duke’s H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River in Goldsboro has received a lot of attention this week. A section of a cooling pond dam broke, but Duke says the river is now receding.
The utility says the plant’s coal ash ponds are intact. But other inactive coal ash dumps nearby are covered in water, said Pete Harrison, a Durham-based lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance.
“It remains to be seen how much coal ash may wash away during this flood. We may never know,” Harrison said.
Harrison said there could be a "significant release" of coal ash as the floodwaters erode the sites. That's a worry because coal ash - the residue left after burning coal - contains toxic heavy metals.
Harrison said the flooding is a good example of why environmentalists want Duke to remove coal ash at all its plants.
“I think it says there's an obvious hazard associated with putting this industrial waste in an unlined pit in the flood zone,” he said.
Actually, Goldsboro is one of the plants where Duke plans to excavate ash.
Harrison and other environmentalists have surveyed flooding this week from kayaks and airplanes, and the problems go beyond coal ash. He said he's seen many hog farms and hog waste lagoons washed out.
“That becomes an issue when you have a lot of pathogens associated with that kind of waste is just floating around in the flood waters. It's also going into people's homes,” Harrison said.
He’s seen dead poultry and livestock, and said many more animals have probably died in their barns.
The damage could surpass Hurricane Floyd in 1999, said assistant environmental secretary Tom Reeder. That state agency has received dozens of reports of damage to hog waste lagoons, but says it could have been worse.
“The reason we're not seeing a lot of hog lagoon impacts right now because Smithfield had all their farmers that were in the 100-year flood plain after Floyd… moved 'em out of there, moved them to higher ground,” Reeder said.
Many of those farms were moved through a state-funded buyout program after Floyd.
State agricultural officials say at least 1.9 million birds - mostly broiler chickens - have died so far. They're not sure how many other animals have died.
[UPDATE, 10 p.m.]
Duke Energy issued a statement Friday evening acknowledging that some erosion occurred at the Goldsboro plant's inactive coal ash impoundments. It read, in part:
"Today, engineers confirmed that some material, including coal ash, eroded and was carried by flood waters outside one of the berms of an inactive basin.
"Water samples taken by the company on Oct. 12, just downstream of the inactive basins, were received today and do not show the presence of measurable ash-related constituents in the Neuse River.
"Because the inactive basins have well-established cover – including organic material, grass, shrubs and trees – they have performed as expected in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
"As flood waters continue to recede, engineers and environmental experts will continue to closely inspect the inactive basins and will be able to better assess the amount of material that was displaced.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the company notified appropriate regulators of the observations today."