Hurricane Florence Unleashes Coal Ash, Sending a Toxic Warning to Trump’s EPA

Just as environmentalists feared, Hurricane Florence has compromised coal ash storage sites near retired and aging power plants in North and South Carolina as the storm pounded the states with high winds and record amounts of rain. Environmentalists now fear that nearby waterways will be contaminated with heavy metals and toxic sludge.

Rain eroded a portion of at least one coal ash landfill over the weekend, creating “waterfalls” of contaminated water upriver from the battered coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina, according to independent monitors. As of Tuesday, environmentalists and first responders were still monitoring several other coal ash ponds and dumps in the region that appeared to be flooded or threatened by swollen rivers.

Near Conway, South Carolina, the National Guard was preparing to drop sandbags and rocks from a helicopter if necessary to prevent floodwaters in the rapidly rising Waccamaw River from breaching an impoundment containing 200,000 tons of coal ash waste at the site of a now-defunct power plant. A coal ash spill would threaten drinking water supplies and the nearby Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, according to local reports.

The coal ash crisis in Florence’s wake comes as the Trump administration faces off with environmental groups over its attempt to roll back updated federal standards for storing coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity that is often stored in covered dumps and open-air lagoons near aging and retired power plants.

Coal ash can contain toxic and radioactive heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium and selenium, but the coal industry has successfully fought off tough federal regulations for storing the waste even after major coal ash spills such as the 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, disaster made national headlines.

Duke Energy, a private utility company that dominates energy production in North and South Carolina, operates several facilities impacted by Hurricane Florence and has a detailed history of polluting streams and groundwater with runoff, leaks and spills from its numerous coal ash storage sites throughout the state — including a massive coal spill in 2014 that choked the Dan River with toxic sludge.

“Waterfalls” Spotted in New Coal Ash Landfill

On Saturday, Duke Energy reported “slope failure and erosion” at a coal ash landfill next to its Sutton power plant, which is located on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. The aging coal plant was retrofitted to run on natural gas in 2013, but large amounts of coal ash waste remain at the site.

The next morning, independent monitors with the Waterkeeper Alliance observed “waterfalls” of coal ash gushing from the new landfill, and they remain concerned that that water contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants would enter the Cape Fear River upstream from Wilmington.

“Those waterfalls were creating a river of polluted water that was leaving the landfill,” said Donna Lisenby, the global advocacy manager at the Waterkeeper Alliance, in an interview on Tuesday.

Duke Energy estimated on Saturday that 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash has been displaced from the Sutton landfill, but Lisenby warned that figure could understate the damage because the coal ash has mixed with water, creating a larger volume of pollution.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Megan Henderson said the hurricane hit while the company was in the process of excavating two unlined coal ash pits and moving the waste into the landfill, which will be “capped and covered” when the upgrade is completed. Only a “minute amount” of ash and water washed off Duke property onto an adjacent industrial site before workers stopped the release of pollutants.

Lisenby said environmentalists still plan to test the Cape Fear River and other waterways for pollution from the landfill after floodwaters subside. A 2013 study found that selenium leaching from the Sutton power plant’s coal ash dumps had killed or deformed thousands of fish in neighboring Sutton Lake.

“Every time it rained through yesterday, polluted water was leaving that landfill, and it was an active, ongoing pollution situation for at least 48 hours, if not more,” Lisenby said, noting that Duke Energy has not released any updates on its website since Saturday.

Lisenby said that three additional coal ash storage ponds for a retired Duke Energy power plant near Goldsboro appeared to be inundated with floodwaters, and environmentalists were still waiting on Tuesday for water levels to decline before collecting pollution samples and assessing the damage on the ground.

Duke Energy is responding to the coal ash problems while repairing storm damage that has left a large number of its customers in North Carolina and beyond without power. Environmentalists are also monitoring the state’s notorious hog farms, where massive lagoons of pig urine and feces have also flooded.

In 2015, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $102 million in fines for the massive coal ash spill in the Dan River. The company has been working to clean up its coal ash dumps and ponds as part of an agreement with federal regulators — including the landfills at the Sutton facility.

However, the company’s coal ash storage sites have continued to leak pollution during heavy rains, and environmentalists say the company has downplayed environmental impacts.

“Disposing of coal ash close to waterways is hazardous, and Duke Energy compounds the problem by leaving most of its ash in primitive unlined pits filled with water,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement. “In fact, at six locations in North Carolina, Duke Energy wants to leave coal ash in unlined pits next to waterways forever.”

The Dan River spill put mounting pressure on the Obama administration to write federal regulations for coal ash, which has been largely unregulated for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released the rules in 2015, but environmental groups said they did not go far enough to prevent groundwater contamination and protect communities from unstable impoundments full of coal ash sludge.

For example, the EPA declined to declare coal ash to be “hazardous waste,” which would require strict federal oversight, rather than regulation by state agencies, which the industry prefers.

However, the EPA’s own research shows that people who live near unlined coal ash storage sites and get their water from underground wells are at an increased risk for cancer. Groundwater contamination near coal ash storage sites has been documented across the country.

The Trump administration recently attempted to weaken the EPA’s coal ash rules further. In July, the EPA released new rules that extend deadlines for closing leaking coal ash ponds and loosen drinking water protection standards for hazardous chemicals and metals such as lead, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum, according to the environmental group Earthjustice. Each change reflected a request from the coal and power industries.

Along with a long list of Obama-era environmental regulations, the Trump administration has hastily worked to dismantle clean air and water regulations for the coal industry in order to keep aging, dirty power plants profitable and in operation. Trump campaigned on buoying the coal industry, which has faced a decline due to growing concerns about climate disruption and a glut of domestically produced natural gas.

“The administration is just doing everything it can to just save some money for coal-fired power plants, and one way to do that is to stop them from spending more money to update their [coal ash] disposal,” said Larissa Liebmann, a staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, in an interview.

Last month, a federal district appeals court sided with Liebmann and other environmental attorneys and ruled that the Obama-era coal ash rules did not go far enough to protect public health, particularly from the dangerous pollutants that leach from unlined coal ash pits into groundwater. The court ordered the EPA to strengthen the rules just weeks after Trump’s EPA moved to weaken them.

Liebmann said it’s unclear what the EPA is going to do with the court order, but the coal ash “waterfalls” unleashed by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina should offer a stern warning.

“I would definitely say this incident highlights the multitude of risks posed by coal ash and the need for this material to be disposed of in a safe and responsible manner, far away from waterways,” Liebmann said. “The Trump administration and the EPA have cut back on any regulations that would push plants to do that.”