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Coal ash, sewage spill over as Hurricane Florence floods the Carolinas

As the storm plodded agonizingly slow across the Carolinas on Saturday, emergency officials warned of even more catastrophic flooding in the days to come

world Updated: Sep 16, 2018 20:09 IST
tropical storm florence,hurricane florence,carolinas
A resident walks from her flooded house towards the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15, 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Florence. (AFP)

A Duke Energy Corp. landfill near Wilmington, North Carolina, failed under the assault of Tropical Storm Florence, spilling about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash that can carry toxic mercury, arsenic and lead. Authorities said Saturday night they would investigate whether the pollutant had reached the Cape Fear River, but said it was not yet safe to inspect the site.

As the storm plodded agonizingly slow across the Carolinas on Saturday, emergency officials warned of even more catastrophic flooding in the days to come, as the deluge killed at least 11, washed partially treated sewage into waterways and left entire communities under water.

“We face walls of water at our coast, along our rivers, across farmland, in our cities, and in our towns,” Governor Roy Cooper said in a briefing Saturday. “The rainfall is epic and will continue to be.”

Florence, the first major hurricane of the Atlantic season, is expected to cause an estimated $18 billion in damage. More than 843,000 customers were without power in the Carolinas and more than 20,000 people have sought protection in shelters. Large-scale search and rescue operations were underway after rivers spilled over their banks and inundated cities near the coast. Emergency management officials said they are increasingly worried about landslides as the storm pours down on already saturated hills and mountains inland.

With rain measured by the foot and vast tracts under water, residents wondered whether crucial infrastructure and industrial emplacements would survive. Of particular concern were environmentally precarious facilities for processing waste from North Carolina’s massive hog industry and for containing the byproducts of power generation.

Duke said part of a lined landfill near its closed Sutton Power Plant east of Wilmington eroded Saturday, releasing enough coal ash to fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized pool. The company said it was unsure how much may have reached Sutton Lake, a cooling pond yards from the Cape Fear River.

Most of the material was collected in a perimeter ditch and haul road that surrounds the landfill, Duke said. Spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said crews used “sand bags and other measures” to stanch the flow, and would make a permanent repair after the weather clears.

The company was ordered two years ago to clean up coal-ash ponds in North Carolina. It came under pressure after about 39,000 tons spilled in 2014 from a pond near Eden. Work was underway at several high-risk sites when Florence hit.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality ‘has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable,’ the agency said in a statement. ‘As soon as it is safe to do so, DEQ will be onsite at the Sutton Steam Plant to conduct a thorough inspection. Once the damage is assessed, DEQ will determine the best path forward and hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.’

Duke said that there was nothing to fear.

‘Coal ash is non-hazardous, and the company does not believe this incident poses a risk to public health or the environment. The company is conducting environmental sampling as well,’ Duke said in a statement.

The storm -- which is crawling west at about 2 miles per hour after making landfall Friday morning as a Category 1 hurricane -- has already poured more than 2 1/2 feet of rain across southeastern North Carolina as it all but stalled over the region for more than 24 hours. Heavy rains were expected to drop as much as 40 inches in some parts by the time it moves north.

In Charlotte, the largest city in the storm’s path and the banking capital of the South, officials expected a record 12 inches, and Mayor Vi Alexander Lyles said her biggest concern is 2,400 properties in the flood plain.

Three rivers in the state have hit “major flood stage,” and an additional 13 threaten to follow suit, according to emergency officials. In Wilmington, an estimated 5.25 million gallons of wastewater spilled into the Cape Fear River from a treatment plant when two generators failed Friday, according to Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality.

A spill of 5.25 million gallons is significant when most are measured in the thousands, said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper at Sound Rivers, an advocacy group. “That is a tremendous negative impact on our water,’’ Starr said.

Partially treated wastewater carries not only bacteria that can harm humans and wildlife, but also the chemicals used to clean it. Human waste isn’t the only danger: North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest hog producer, and farms process feces in ponds laced with bacteria that break down the noisome mess. Though farmers hurried to pump out their lagoons, record flooding risks spreading contamination widely.

While floods are the most pressing threat, wind and water have already proved deadly. At least 11 people have died in the storm, the Associated Press reported.

The total bill for damage may reach $18 billion, lower than earlier estimates, said Chuck Watson, a disaster researcher at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. That includes $15 billion for North Carolina, $2 billion for South Carolina and $1 billion elsewhere.

More than 40,000 utility workers from at least 17 states are ready to restore power, according to a news release from the federal energy department. Besides Duke Energy, utilities in the Carolinas include South Carolina-owned Santee Cooper, Brunswick Electric Membership Corp., Jones Onslow Electric Membership and Lumbee River Electric Membership.

As of July, 134,306 flood-insurance policies had been issued in North Carolina for $33.7 billion in property, the vast majority along the coast, according to Aon Benfield. The region’s population has been rising, and since 2000, at least 19 counties in North Carolina and South Carolina have seen more than 25,000 residential units built, the report said.

The states’ agriculture economies are also at risk. North Carolina is forecast to harvest 158,800 acres of tobacco this year, and it’s the nation’s top producer. Half the eastern North Carolina crop “will be basically destroyed, blown away,” Larry Wooten, president of the state’s Farm Bureau, said Saturday.

More than 60 swine operations house more than 235,000 hogs that generate almost 202 million gallons of waste per year within the floodplain of North Carolina’s coast, according to Waterkeepers, a watchdog group. Environmental organizations are preparing to inspect waterways for toxic spills from lagoons once the storm subsides.

(This story has been published from an agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

First Published: Sep 16, 2018 16:23 IST