On Friday, Duke Energy shut down a power plant near Wilmington after a dam breach between 100 and 200 feet wide, at the south end of Sutton Lake, allowed floodwaters to swamp two basins containing huge stockpiles of arsenic-laced ash.
Duke’s L.V. Sutton facility has been a focus of increasing concern for environmentalists and regulators since last week, when rains from Hurricane Florence caused a coal ash landfill at the site to erode, spilling waste onto a local roadway.
Coal ash is the powdery substance that remains after burning coal. The Environmental Protection Agency links the substances it contains — including heavy metals like arsenic and lead — to nervous-system problems, reproductive issues and cancer.
It was not immediately clear how much ash was released. The extent of the threat will depend on how quickly the breach can be stopped, state officials said.
A significant spill could endanger the water supply for the southeastern part of the state, which is still reeling from record-breaking flooding that has closed many of the region’s roads, including a long stretch of Interstate 95 south of the Virginia border.
And the danger of more flooding remains. The Cape Fear River is scheduled to crest Saturday morning at 31.3 feet, more than 7 feet above its historic flood stage. Water levels will remain high through Tuesday.
Coal ash is not the only pollutant to cause North Carolina woes in the wake of Florence. The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure each year. Most of that manure is stored in large earthen lagoons; a growing number of those lagoons are flooding.
As of midday on Friday, at least 54 lagoons have discharged their waste into the environment, another 76 are at risk of doing so, and six have some form of structural damage that may have led to the release of pig feces. The number is expected to increase.
State inspectors, who conducted a drone survey of the area on Friday, said there appeared to be “no structural issues” with the basins’ inner containment walls, or impoundments, said Bridget Munger, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
They are monitoring the situation in “real time” and plan to conduct an investigation into the causes of the failure once the situation has stabilized, Munger said in an email.
“This is a crisis that we’re addressing but it’s in the context of a huge state emergency, so that’s just part of the big picture for us,” Munger said.
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said in a statement on Friday that, “a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts by their coal ash facilities.”
A representative for the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency had not been out to the site, and that it would lend its support to state officials at their request.
As state officials fretted over the plant, residents and workers in the surrounding area were impatient to get back to their daily routines and were concerned about potential damage.
“The dam really worries me. The idea that it could spill over and spread chemicals is really concerning,” said Charles Holliday, 27, who was clearing debris from his family’s yard in the small town of Navassa, the nearest residential area to the plant. “This whole area has a lot of industrial plants and chemicals and that kind of thing. So you add it all up and, yes, it’s something we are all going to get a little panicked about.”
The river has already spread hundreds of yards beyond its banks, turning the piney flats west of Wilmington into a muddy lagoon punctured by tilting trees and half-submerged railroad bridges.
The plant itself, cordoned off by security, but visible from a highway overpass, was covered by a thin pool of water, with the area closest to the lake appearing to be the most inundated.
Peter Harrison, a lawyer with Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit, took a boat on the river to see the site himself. He said there were multiple places where the dam around the lake had breached, and the lake water was pouring into the river. From what he could see, he added, the lake water appeared full of coal ash.
“You can just see that swirling down the river for like miles and miles,” Harrison said.
Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, said, “We’ll probably never know how much has spilled into the river.” Because the spill stems from large-scale flooding over a wide area, it’s difficult to calculate how much ash is entering the river.
The breach of the dam imperils two unlined coal ash ponds on site, which contain a combined 2.1 million cubic yards of coal ash, according to a report prepared for Duke Energy this year. That amount of coal ash would fill a large sports stadium.
Scrutiny of coal ash has increased since 2008, when the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the environment. The cleanup cost more than $1 billion.
Last week, the storm caused a coal ash landfill at the Duke plant to erode, spilling about 2,000 cubic yards of the ash onto an adjacent roadway.
The spill was quickly cleaned up, the company said. But the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, disputed that, saying at least some of the coal ash remains in the area.
In 2014 Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in Eden, North Carolina, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, prompting the state to require Duke to order all of Duke’s coal ash ponds closed. That process is not yet complete.
In May 2015, the Justice Department announced a $102 million fine against Duke Energy after the utility pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its North Carolina facilities.
The fine included a $68 million criminal penalty and $34 million for environmental projects and land conservation to benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia. Four of the nine charges were related to the Dan River spill. The other violations were based on allegations of historical violations at the company’s other operations.
The L.V. Sutton plant now burns natural gas, but until 2013 it housed a three-unit, 575-megawatt coal-fired plant. The coal ash from that operation remains on site, with the oldest of the ash basins dating back to 1971.
The coal ash landfill at Duke’s L.V. Sutton plant, which spilled last week, was supposed to provide secure storage for the site’s two coal ash ponds, but the fact that it is already failing now has some environmental groups questioning its structural integrity.
“You know the thing with the Tennessee Valley river spill, and the same thing with the Dan River spill, a lot of that ash was never recovered,” said Lisa Evans, a lawyer with Earthjustice. “If you spill into a lake and that lake water continues to spill into that river rapidly you’re going to have maybe even a bigger clean up problem.”
“If you have 2 million tons of ash going into that lake,” Evans added, “that lake is dead.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.