Duke Downplays Threat From Coal-Ash Spill in Carolina Storm

(Bloomberg) -- Duke Energy Corp. is confident most of the coal ash that breached a North Carolina landfill was contained at the site and that the spill doesn’t pose an imminent threat to public safety or the environment, a company official told Bloomberg TV.

“It’s not hazardous,” David Fountain, Duke’s president for North Carolina, said Sunday. “We believe most of the material was contained on-site, and we certainly have confidence that there’s no impact to the environment or public health and safety at this time.”

He said that once flood waters recede, the company will be able to send teams to the facility to perform “minor repairs.”

Duke issued a statement Saturday warning the public that about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash -- enough to fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized pool -- had flowed out of a landfill at its Sutton Power Plant site. The company has maintained that contamination of a nearby river is “highly unlikely,” but water tests won’t be available for several days as flooding prevents access.

The company was ordered two years ago to clean up its coal-ash ponds. It came under pressure after about 39,000 tons spilled in 2014 near Eden, North Carolina. Work was underway at several high-risk sites when Florence hit. Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains metals including arsenic, chromium and mercury that pose risks to public health and the environment if spilled into drinking water supplies.

Duke Downplays Threat From Coal-Ash Spill in Carolina Storm

Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said coal ash shouldn’t be stored close to waterways.

“No rational person wants coal ash or these pollutants flowing into our waters,” he said in a Sunday email. “After this storm, we hope that Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it.”

North Carolina authorities have said they will investigate when the storm eases.

Hurricane Florence was downgraded Sunday to a tropical depression, but heavy rainfall continued to batter North Carolina even as winds eased. Fountain said it was too early to estimate likely costs related to damage from the storm.

He said Duke believes there has been “extensive structural damage” to parts of its distribution and transmission systems. About 400,000 of Duke’s customers were without power as of Sunday evening, and while the company had restored electricity to more than 1 million homes and businesses, Fountain said earlier that day that they were prepared for more outages.

“There is a lot of damage in the hardest hit areas,” he said. “It’s really going to take a while for the flood waters to recede so that we can get in and conduct our damage assessments.”

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