Duke Energy Closes Coal-Ash Breach After Spill Flows Into Fishing Lake

(Bloomberg) -- Duke Energy Corp. has closed the breach of its coal-ash landfill in North Carolina, but not before the spill leaked into a popular fishing lake that hosts regular tournaments for anglers.

The landfill at the company’s Sutton power plant near Wilmington broke open after Hurricane Florence inundated the region with flooding rains. Duke informed state officials that some of the coal-ash reached Lake Sutton, spokesman Bill Norton said in an email. Further repairs are underway, he said.

The admission drew immediate fire from environmentalists who had already said the company’s initial estimate that 2,000 cubic yards (1,529 cubic meters) of coal ash spilled probably underestimates its extent. The leakage into the 1,100-acre man-made lake adds an important public health concern, said Kemp Burdette, with the group Waterkeeper Alliance.

“It’s of the most popular places to fish in this area,” Burdette said in a telephone interview. “They clean those fish on that dock, put them in their coolers and take them home and eat them.”

Coal ash, a byproduct from burning the fuel in power plants, can carry arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium, though its overall toxicity has long been debated. The landfill was constructed after Duke, the biggest utility in the Carolinas, was required to close unlined coal ash ponds at several sites and construct lined landfills to hold the material.

No Imminent Threat

While Duke has said the spill poses no imminent threat, environmentalists countered that the potential risks remain unclear. Duke has yet to say “how much coal ash entered the rain water and washed off the site," said Donna Lisenby, global advocacy manager at the Waterkeeper Alliance. “They’re not telling us the water impacts.”

The company has an August 2019 deadline to complete the Sutton landfill and cap it with plastic and soil to prevent future spills. The nearby lake was dug by Duke to provide cooling waters for the now-shuttered coal plant at the site. That facility was replaced by a natural gas plant at the same site.

Duke has been working on several fronts to deal with the impact of Florence. It has restored power to almost 80 percent of customers who went dark in the storm, and has freshly staffed and supplied its Brunswick nuclear station after it was cut off by flooding last weekend.

Sept. 26 Target

The target for getting almost all electricity restored is Sept. 26, Duke said in a statement, though that won’t include customers with damage that might prevent the return of service. About 207,000 customers were without power Tuesday afternoon.

Burdette, who visited the landfill Sunday, said he saw water still pouring out of a breach at that point.

“I don’t know what the volume is, but I know it’s not 2,000 cubic yards,” Burdette said. “They’re going to need to dramatically increase their estimate if they want to remain credible.”

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