Along With Flooding, Hurricane Florence Unleashes Toxic Coal Ash

The coal industry dumped its toxic waste in the cheapest way possible. Now coal ash pits are leaking and spilling amid flooding from Hurricane Florence.

Coal ash spilled by Hurricane Florence coats a turtle in Cape Fear River, North Carolina.
Coal ash spilled by Hurricane Florence coats a turtle in Cape Fear River, North Carolina. (Riverkeepers cleaned and released the turtle.) (Pete Harrison / Earthjustice)

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As Hurricane Florence floods the Carolinas, a long-buried coal industry secret is rising to the surface. Across the country, giant pits filled with millions of tons of coal ash — a toxic byproduct of burning coal — are leaking. And in the storm-pummeled Southeast, the toxic waste is spreading with the floodwaters.

Coal ash sites at the Duke Energy H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro, North Carolina, are actively spilling coal ash into the nearby Neuse River. On Wednesday, during a canoe patrol of the flooded area by Waterkeeper groups and Earthjustice attorney Pete Harrison, the group spotted large amounts of floodwater washing coal ash downstream, as well as large swaths of floating coal ash in stagnant areas. The unprotected berm meant to hold the ash in place was eroding away in dozens of locations.

Together, the three Lee coal ash basins hold about 1 million tons of toxic ash that contains heavy metals like arsenic and lead. And they are now completely under water.

But they’re not the only coal ash sites failing amid the storm. On Friday, floodwaters breached an earthen dam holding back Sutton Lake, a former cooling reservoir at another Duke Energy site, the L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington, North Carolina. Waters from the lake flooded one of three adjacent coal ash lagoons, and riverkeepers are now seeing coal ash in the nearby Cape Fear River. On Thursday, the company had activated a high-level emergency alert after floodwaters from the river overtopped the lake’s earthen dam. And a coal ash landfill under construction at the Sutton plant ruptured last week, spilling enough ash to fill 180 dump trucks.

“These are ongoing spills that will continue until the floodwaters recede,” says Harrison, who adds that both spills present a threat to drinking water. “It’s mind-boggling that these power companies built their toxic waste dumps right next to flood prone rivers. It means that every time there’s a major flood, downstream communities have to worry about being exposed to toxic coal ash — as if they don’t already have enough to worry about.”

The National Weather Service expects the flooding to worsen over the next few days in the aftermath of Florence.

These incidents are entirely predictable, given that industry chooses to deal with this toxic waste the cheapest way it knows how: by placing these unlined or poorly lined pits next to rivers and in floodplains so that the coal plant doesn’t have to travel far to water down its waste. Though this practice is great for the industry’s bottom line, it’s a disaster waiting to happen for communities unfortunate enough to live next to these waste sites.

“Communities living near coal ash dumps are absorbing all the risk when the sites leak or fail,” says Earthjustice attorney and coal ash expert Lisa Evans. “Meanwhile, coal companies like Duke make billions of dollars in profits. The inequity of the situation is apparent, and appalling.”

As manmade climate change persists, floods are likely to swamp North Carolina’s coal ash sites more often. Since the 1990s, climate change has altered weather patterns so drastically that North Carolina has endured four hurricanes or tropical storms that qualify as 100-year storms.

And coal ash incidents aren’t limited to when a hurricane rolls into town. In October 2017, Duke Energy had yet another coal ash spill at one of its sites near the city of Gaffney, South Carolina, after 3.74 inches of rain. And the infamous TVA Kingston spill in 2008, which released more than a billion gallons of coal ash and devastated the community of Harriman, Tennessee, occurred in the middle of what was otherwise a cold and dry December night.

Environmentalists and public safety advocates have pushed the EPA for decades to strengthen regulations on these ticking time bombs. In 2015, we made some headway after the EPA created its first-ever regulations on coal ash. Thanks to the 2015 rule, which required utilities nationwide to test the water near their coal ash sites, we’re now seeing confirmation of what we’ve suspected all along: Coal ash sites are leaking pretty much everywhere we look, rain or shine, including in states like Oklahoma and Indiana.

But the new rules didn’t go far enough. Among other things, the government failed to adequately regulate unlined and poorly lined ash pits. The agency also improperly exempted coal ash ponds at closed coal-fired power plants from regulation. The three submerged and spilling Lee basins are currently exempted under the rule.

Earthjustice, on behalf of public interest groups, sued the EPA over these failings. In August, an appeals court agreed with us, ordering the EPA to revise the 2015 rule to adequately address the health and environmental threats from these coal ash sites. The judges’ order also requires the EPA to close unlined ponds before utilities determine they are leaking — a decision with huge implications given that about 95 percent of the nation’s nearly 1,000 ash ponds are unlined.

As communities across the Carolinas brace for more river flooding following Hurricane Florence, we are just beginning to see the extent of the devastation the storm has caused. The Southeast alone has dozens of coal ash sites in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Many of them are right in the path of Florence. Only time will tell how many of these sites are ultimately affected by the floods.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to work within the courts to force government agencies to enact stronger protections for coal ash to protect our communities — particularly communities of color and low-income communities that are disproportionately affected. Earthjustice, alongside our partners and allies, has long fought to get coal ash properly regulated. We’re not stopping now.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

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