In sunnier times, Lake Sutton in North Carolina is a popular fishing spot. A visitors’ guide says anglers who head to the man-made lake “will likely reel in bass, beam, catfish and crappie from the on-site pier.”
But hopefully no coal ash.
Tropical Storm Florence has poured so much rain on the state that the wall of a coal ash landfill near the lake has failed in several places, washing away more than 2,000 cubic yards of toxic waste, enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks.
Duke Energy, which owns the adjacent power plant, said it doesn’t believe the landfill poses a risk to public health or the environment, according to spokeswoman Paige Sheehan. But it also dispatched dozens of workers and contractors with heavy equipment to construct an earthen berm that would divert the mix of water and coal ash away from the lake.
Kemp Burdette, an environmental advocate who monitors the health of the Cape Fear River, decided to see for himself. On Sunday, he pushed aside a Duke Energy barricade on a public road to put in his boat. His assessment?
“I see no way that could have been contained without getting into Sutton Lake,” he said.
The scrambling at the Sutton power plant is just one of many environmental concerns that are spreading as Florence continued to soak hog and chicken farms, flood coal ash pits, threaten municipal water systems, and idle a nuclear power plant, cutting it off from local roads.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that once conditions allow, the agency plans to deploy “reconnaissance teams” to visually inspect Superfund hazardous-waste sites in the Carolinas and Georgia that might have been affected by the storm. The agency’s National Priorities List includes more than 70 toxic sites in North and South Carolina, including former chemical plants, pesticide dumps and at least one former smelting operation near the coast.
Pollution from coal ash at a Duke Energy power plant in Wilmington kills hundreds of thousands of young fish a year and deforms many more, says a study commissioned by environmental groups that are suing Duke in 2014.
Duke called the findings “highly suspect,” saying its own studies over more than 30 years have found no health effects on fish.
Dennis Lemly, a research biologist at Wake Forest University who authored the environmental study, calculates that selenium from Duke’s ash kills 900,000 fish a year in Sutton Lake. The popular fishing lake cools water from Duke’s Sutton coal-fired power plant.
The vast hog farms and their waste lagoons — which Burdette called “cesspools the size of football fields” — pose one of the greatest perils. The North Carolina Pork Council says that lagoons holding hog feces and urine are supposed to safely absorb at least 19 inches of rain and that ahead of the storm many were prepared for more than 25 inches. But Florence has dumped that much or close in some areas.
Monday afternoon, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had received reports of discharges or overtopping of lagoons at seven locations. Four other lagoons had been inundated by floodwaters.
Fourteen lagoons were at or near their capacity.
“While there are more than 3,000 active lagoons in the state that have been unaffected by the storm, we remain concerned about the potential impact of these record-shattering floods,” said Andy Curliss, the North Carolina Pork Council CEO.
When the lagoons are doing their job, the liquid excrement they hold is a deep reddish-pink. Berms and pumps keep the bacteria-laden sludge from spilling out.
But during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, hog lagoons across the eastern part of North Carolina broke open and dumped tons of liquid and solid waste into the storm waters. That material flowed downstream, eventually settling in coastal estuaries. It was blamed for elevated nitrogen and phosphorous levels, algae blooms and fish kills.
State environmental officials insisted they learned lessons from Floyd. They put a moratorium on building new farms with more than 250 hogs. After that hurricane, the state bought out 43 hog operations located in the flood plain, removing 103 waste lagoons. Other lagoons were relocated to higher ground and, in some cases, re-engineered.
But farms still take hog feces and urine from the open-air lagoons and pump the mixture onto crops as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Many people neighboring the hog operations successfully sued for damages because of the odor and flies that drift over to their properties.
Farmers face lawsuits and at least 25 scheduled trials. Jury verdicts from three trials have resulted in more than a half-billion dollars in judgments against the farmers, according to news reports. In response, Smithfield Foods Inc., which faces nuisance complaints from about 500 North Carolinians, has begun to remove pigs from some farms targeted by lawsuits, erasing, potentially, the livelihoods of farmers.
In May 2017, North Carolina’s legislature passed a law limiting the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against hog farms for odors, headaches, flies and other aggravations. In June 2018, the state Senate approved another bill limiting the ability of landowners to seek damages in court.
North Carolina hog farmers also got a break from the Trump administration, which has moved to relax federal regulations on both coal ash ponds and animal waste lagoons over the past year, arguing that Obama-era standards impose too heavy a burden on industry.
And in July, the Environmental Protection Agency relaxed 2015 standards for handling the toxic waste generated by burning coal, allowing states to suspend groundwater monitoring in certain cases.
Coal ash is what’s left over after being burned in a power plant, and it contains a variety of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium.
The question of how to properly store coal ash — a fine powder that is usually turned into sludge — has bedeviled federal policymakers for years. Those toxins are linked to cancer, heart disease and neurological damage in children.
Obama’s EPA reached a compromise with industry that required increased monitoring and compelled companies to line ash pits to prevent leaks into nearby waterways, but it did not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Obama rule was not stringent enough because it did not apply to coal ash ponds at shuttered coal-fired power plants. Environmental groups are also challenging the more recent coal ash rule in federal court.
Duke Energy owns all 32 coal ash disposal basins — pits, ponds and landfills — across North Carolina, even though half of the company’s 14 coal-fired power plants have been shut down and Sutton has been converted into a natural-gas-fired plant.
The disposal sites had many flaws. Initially, the company dumped coal ash in unlined, open-air pits. Rainfall and other waste water turned many into ponds. The four disposal basins at Sutton leached metals into the lake, and from there, some flowed into the Cape Fear River. In one case, Duke paid $2.25 million and built new pipes to bring clean drinking water to a small community.
The company long fought to fend off state regulation of the coal ash sites. But in February 2014, a Duke Energy coal ash basin flooded when a storm-water pipe cracked open, dumping 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The company later pleaded guilty to criminal negligence.
Since then, Duke has been moving coal ash out of ponds and into landfills, but it’s been slow going. Two of the coal ash pits are closed, but the rest remain.
At the HF Lee power plant in Goldsboro, where more than 20 inches of rain fell, the Neuse River has flooded three coal ash disposal sites, a Duke spokeswoman said. Like many other older coal ash sites, these have been overgrown with trees. Duke plans to excavate the coal ash in the coming years.
Duke said that based on experience, the flooded tree-covered pits would have “no measurable environmental effects,” said Sheehan, the spokeswoman.
Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said his group and others remained concerned about flooding at the Lee site, at another near Lumberton, and yet another farther upstream on the Cape Fear River, near Sanford.
“My main immediate concern is that one of Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash pits will breach, spilling large quantities of coal ash into one of North Carolina’s rivers,” Holleman said in an email. “My main concern overall is that we will get through this storm, and Duke Energy and the state of North Carolina will learn nothing from it and go back to business as usual — leaving our rivers and communities at risk when the next flood or hurricane occurs.”