Environment

Coal ash on the water and trees: “The area looks like a winter wonderland”

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Coal ash that spilled from the Lee plant near Goldsboro (Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance)

This post has been updated with a comment from NC DEQ.

For the past week Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, has been surveilling the water near Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee facility, assessing flood damage from the hurricane. First, he noticed that the river waters, he told NCPW last week, “were chewing away at the [coal ash] dam.”

Now the riverkeepers and Waterkeeper Alliance — the same groups that both Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Gov. Pat McCrory have called “environmental extremists” — have found a large coal ash spill from the Lee plant, 10 miles upstream of Goldsboro.

Fly ash coated tree branches as much as seven feet above the river surface, Starr wrote on the Waterkeeper Alliance website. Video shows an inch-thick layer of coal ash on the water.

This is how Duke Energy described the scene near the plant last Saturday, which downplays the amount of coal ash that had been spilled:

 Site inspections at the H.F. Lee Power Plant in Goldsboro, N.C., today confirm there was only very minor erosion of material from an inactive coal ash basin on the site. The majority of that material, which includes coal ash, remained very close to the inactive basin, on the berm or a few feet away on the basin roadway. The state team that inspected the facility determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck.

NC DEQ issued a statement today that resembles Duke Energy’s:

Environmental department staff determined on Monday that material found at the H.F. Lee facility in Wayne County is not coal ash as falsely reported by a special interest group. The material, called cenospheres are inert and non-toxic.

“It’s unfortunate that a political group masquerading as environmentalists is deliberately trying to mislead the public,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of the environmental department. “This type of fear mongering is appalling in the wake of a storm that cost people their lives, their homes, and their businesses.”

During an unrelated site visit on Saturday, environmental staff inspected the erosion of an inactive coal ash basin and determined that a minimal amount of coal ash – described as less than would fit in a pickup truck – was released from the basin. 

Cenospheres are a byproduct of coal combustion. The microscopic particles are composed of iron, silica and alumina. However, they are not necessarily non-toxic. In July, The Center for Public Integrity interviewed an environmental toxicologist from Applachian State who said that cenospheres in ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority spill contained gel. That gel, the story said, “turned out to be iron oxide coated with arsenic at levels exceeding health thresholds for aquatic and human life.”

Inhaled, the cenospheres can damage the respiratory system not only from contamination but their sharp edges.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center reminded us of the coal ash dam hazard ratings at the remaining six plants. Unlike eight other sites that will be excavated, these will not. (The Yadkin Riverkeeper, represented by SELC, last week reached a settlement with Duke requiring the utility to excavate the material at Buck.)

Here are the dams and their hazard ratings:

High hazard

  • Allen Active Lagoon Coal Ash Dam (Lake Wylie)
  •  Belews Creek Coal Ash Dam (Walnut Cove)
  •  Cliffside Active Lagoon Coal Ash Dam (near Shelby)
  •  Cliffside Unit 5 Coal Ash Dam
  •  Cliffside Units 1-4 Coal Ash Dam (only this coal ash lagoon at Cliffside is being excavated)

Significant Hazard

  • Allen Retired Lagoon Coal Ash Dam (Lake Wylie)
  •  Marshall Coal Ash Dam (Lake Norman)
  •  Mayo coal ash dam (Person County)
  •  Roxboro West Coal Ash Dam (Person County)
  •  Roxboro East Coal Ash Dam  (Person County)

 

 

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