Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said that the spill was generally insignificant and that the pond was inactive; Duke is responsible for the coal ash site that stores the ash left over from burning coal.
But then the Waterkeeper Alliance raced to the scene shortly after that and said that the flood waters were threatening to release even more coal ash into the upper part of that river. It said that coal ash had gotten on the banks of the river and on the trees; a second such spill had occurred.
North Carolina environmental regulators “request that Duke Energy submit a plan of action to address the release at the inactive ash basin complex and any potential releases at the cooling pond and triangle pond,” the environmental department wrote to Duke Energy last week.
The plan, it adds will include taking samples of surface water and the soil to determine just what chemicals have — or have not — leached into the eco-system.
Regulators estimate that at least million of tons of coal were in the pond and had been impacted by the flood waters.
“The record-breaking flood of Neuse River inundated three inactive coal ash ponds for five days last week,” says the Waterkeeper Alliance. “The flooded ponds are unlined and uncovered, containing more than a million tons of coal ash spread over 170 acres in a layer four to ten feet deep.
What makes this incident so sensitive is that a few years ago, Duke Energy also had a coal ash spill that released 100,000 cubic yards of waste into the nearby Dan River. The river turned completely grey.
At present, coal ash is buried in landfills, although those sites must keep a safe distance from surface and groundwater supplies. For coal ash buried on utility grounds, the ponds need to be properly lined to keep the waste from bleeding out.
Coal power plants produce about 140 million tons of coal ash a year, at roughly 1,100 sites in 37 states. The waste contains arsenic, mercury and selenium that is harmful to human health and the environment.
By Ken Silverstein