In Wilmington, slope on Sutton coal ash landfill fails, plus sewage spills from city wastewater plant

Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington. Rains from Hurricane Florence caused a slope at an on-site coal ash landfill to collapse. (File photo: Duke Energy)

This post has been updated with a statement from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Torrential rain from Hurricane Florence caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington. The utility reported about 2,000 cubic yards of material, including ash, was displaced.

For context, the average commercial dump truck holds about 10-14 cubic yards, meaning the amount of displaced material at Sutton was equivalent to 142 dump truck loads.

It’s unclear if the rains carried any coal ash beyond the landfill and into the lake — and if so, how much. The landfill, which is lined, is designed to hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells.

The utility notified state environmental regulators of the slope failure.

DEQ Communications Director Megan S. Thorpe issued a statement, saying the agency has been “closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record-breaking event.”

State inspectors will go to the plant “as soon as it is safe to do so.”

“Once the damage is assessed,” the statement went on, “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.”

The catastrophic storm also caused a generator to fail yesterday at Wilmington’s southside wastewater treatment plant, allowing 5.25 million gallons of sewage to bypass the system. However, according to DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger, the wastewater was spilled at the third step in a five-step process, “so it was not nearly as bad as a raw sewage spill.” The steps that were missed were secondary clarification and disinfection, so were very few solids in the spill.

The spill is less severe than an incident in western North Carolina last April in which 15.4 million gallons were released to Long Creek. That accident was also caused by rain.

In October 2017, heavy rain also caused a release of 4.8 million gallons to Mallard Creek in the Yadkin River basin.

How to monitor nuclear reactors during Hurricane Florence (and in calmer times)

Duke Energy temporarily shut down its Brunswick Nuclear Plant in advance of Hurricane Florence’s landfall. (Photo: Duke Energy)

All of North Carolina’s four nuclear reactors lie in or near the path of Hurricane Florence, as the storm moves from east to west. While the plants were built to withstand storms of this severity, readers might be curious about how to monitor them. All of the reactors are owned, at least in part, by Duke Energy.

  • Brunswick, near Southport and Wilmington, has two units, one that began operating in 1975 and the other in 1977.
  • McGuire, is on Lake Norman in Mecklenburg County. Its first unit went online in 1981, followed by the second unit in 1984.
  • Shearon Harris, which lies 22 miles southwest of Raleigh on Harris Lake, has one unit. It began operating in 1987.
  • Catawba, technically in South Carolina, is on Lake Wylie, which straddles the state line. Its two units went online in the mid-1980s.

Like all of the nation’s reactors, they are overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC’s website contains many public documents, including incident and environmental reports For example, you can read about the amount of radioactive effluent the plants legally discharge into their respective lakes.

On this page of the NRC site, you can see the operating status of the plants. North Carolina is in Region II, and if you scroll down, you’ll see that Brunswick has temporarily stopped producing power. Duke Energy announced it was doing so, more out of concern about potential flooding than wind.

The main reactor page contains several links, including those all-important “radioactive effluent and environmental reports” — not exactly bedtime reading, but nonetheless interesting.

The ADAMS portion of the NRC site can take you down many rabbit holes, but it contains the comprehensive database of public documents, both current and archived. Also of note is the page listing the “reports associated with incidents.” This links to reports for reactors nationwide. You can search by date and year.

These reports include not only incidents involving nuclear reactors but also “unplanned contamination events” (as opposed to the planned variety?) the transport and disposal of radioactive waste and medical facilities’ use of radioactive materials, such as those in CT and PET scans.

I go to the NRC website at least once a week for updates. During events like Hurricane Florence, I check in a minimum of once a day. Now you can, too.


Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. The dirty half dozen: What you need to know about all six proposed constitutional amendments

The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and North Carolina voters will soon pass judgment on, among many other things, an unprecedented raft of six constitutional amendments.

The proposals include:

  • a proposal to permanently cap the state income tax rate,
  • a proposal to remake the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement so as to alter its composition and how its members are selected,
  • a proposal to dramatically alter and limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to filling vacancies that occur on the state courts,
  • a proposal to require some undetermined form of photo identification for in-person voting,
  • a proposal to establish a state constitutional “right” to hunt and fish, and
  • a proposal to enact a multi-faceted “victims’ rights” amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

There are many compelling reasons to oppose all six – starting with the absurd and outrageous lack of process that accompanied their approval by the General Assembly during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session, the hurried rewrite of two amendments in late August, and the deceitful and dishonest way the proposals will be summarized and presented on the ballot.

Still, even if one were to set aside all of the profound problems of process and procedure, there are numerous important substantive deficiencies in each amendment that are more than adequate to justify a “no” vote. Here is a brief list: [Read more...]

2. Old and in the way: Hurricane Florence could barrel over landfills, waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and more toxics

Thousands of animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other repositories of toxic material lie in and near the projected path of Hurricane Florence, increasing the risk of breaches or leaks of dangerous chemicals into the environment. (This is one important reason you should avoid wading through or touching flood waters.)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has a new mapping and data feature, which shows the locations of these sites, both in map form and spreadsheet. All of the maps below are from the DEQ site and can be clicked on to enlarge them. We’ve linked to each map; once you get to that DEQ page, click on the “data” tab to view the addresses and facility names in spreadsheet form.

The first map shows all of the animal feeding operations for permitted swine, cattle and poultry farms that use wet litter. (Dry litter poultry farms are “deemed permitted” and are largely unregulated.) With more than a foot of rain forecast, there is a higher risk of lagoon breaches, which can send millions of gallons of animal waste to rivers, wetlands and nearby property. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

Read more


A double whammy: Dams that are high hazard and in poor condition

While Hurricane Florence could endanger animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other toxic repositories, there is another potential hazard to consider: Weak dams Of the 3,000 dams statewide, 1,447 are designated as “high hazard” in the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s inventory. If the structure were to fail, there is a substantial risk of harm to people and property.

By state law, owners of dams designated high or intermediate are required to file with DEQ an emergency action plan, known for short as an EAP, although as the database shows, many of them don’t. High-hazard dams are also supposed to be inspected every two years, while intermediate- and low-hazard dams are on a five-year cycle.

Of these high hazard dams, 126 are also listed in poor condition — signified in red in the map above. Some of these dams are government- or corporate-owned but most are private: Homeowners’ associations, individuals, trusts.

The track of Hurricane Florence has moved south as of Wednesday. The storm is enormous, though, and effects will likely be felt well outside the storm’s path. (Map: National Hurricane Center)

You can zoom in on the map and click on a symbol to see the dam’s owner, the nearest town, the river basin and other information. If a dam is listed as “breached” in this database, it has been intentionally dismantled. This happened in 2017 with the privately owned Woodlake Dam in Moore County, which was in such bad condition the state took it over and breached the dam in order to drain the lake.

Of the 590 intermediate hazard dams 26 are listed in poor condition, symbolized by the purple markers below.

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment

Lawsuit tries to muzzle opponents of Durham charter school in environmentally sensitive watershed

Discovery Charter School would be built on 58 acres over three parcels: 501, 505 and 717 Orange Factory Road. Many neighbors oppose the siting because of the school’s proximity to the Little River, a drinking water source for Durham.

Note: This is one of two legal cases involving the siting of Discovery Charter School. A summary of the second case will be posted tomorrow.

A major developer of charter schools, Steve Hubrich claims he’s only trying to protect his reputation. But the president of Hubrich Contracting has filed what appears to be a SLAPP suit against opponents of one of his projects, Discovery Charter School, in northern Durham County.

SLAPP suits, short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, are often used by companies and government agencies to silence their critics under the guise of defamation claims. The plaintiffs don’t want to win a judgment; their claims are often flimsy. Instead, plaintiffs want to intimidate their opponents and rack up their attorney’s fees, with the goal of making the critics and their criticisms go away.

Hubrich’s claims, according to court records, match the characteristics of these intimidatory tactics. The allegations could be refuted — and are, according to court records. Yet with a $25,000 judgment on the line — and a request for a jury trial, which would likely require the defense to hire an attorney — Hubrich could effectively muzzle his opponents.

Anti-SLAPP suit attorneys Peter Kurdock and Mark Goldowitz of the Public Participation Project wrote on their website that SLAPPs aren’t just random meritless lawsuits. They are lawsuits that directly attack First Amendment rights.”

Making matters worse, North Carolina does not have an anti-SLAPP law. About half of the states do.

With an estimated 500 students, Discovery Charter School is scheduled to open as a middle school next fall and would be built in an environmentally sensitive watershed near the Little River in northern Durham County. To build the school in this rural and agricultural area, Hubrich was required to get a minor Special Use Permit from the county’s Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial body.

For more than a year, several neighbors along rural Orange Factory Road have fought the project and spoken against it at public hearings. They say the school, whose property would consume nearly 58 acres, would fracture wildlife habitats, jeopardize the quality of the Little River — a drinking water source for Durham — plus add onerous traffic of an extra 500 trips a day to a two-lane, officially designated NC Scenic Byway.

“The purpose of the website was to rally public opposition to the application for a minor Special Use Permit and called for people to attend a county Board of Adjustment hearing,” Hubrich complained, according to court documents.

Yet Hubrich’s main allegation was that someone had posted a false statement on the website insinuating that he planned to move several graves on the property, including “a baby’s” from a “slave cemetery” into one common grave.

The website text in question (upper right) from a court filing in the defamation suit.

Hubrich said in court documents that his contracting agent had found several depressions on the property believed to be unmarked grave sites. The agent then contacted the state Department of Archeology as required, Hubrich said, and the site had not been disturbed. Hubrich did say that state law allows him to combine these graves into one common site.

Hubrich, who has been in business for 24 years, claimed the opponents’ statements “harmed his reputation” as he was building “relationships with educators.” That relationship, though, seems to be on firm ground: Hubrich’s firm has built at least 11 charter schools, including Voyager Academy in Durham, and a Duke University call center.

Project opponents allegedly knew their statement was false, Hubrich contended, and had “malicious intent to injure the plaintiff’s reputation and business and to shift public sentiment against the project.”

But a strict reading of the web page in question, included in the court file, shows Hubrich’s account is a stretch. It doesn’t state a grave was moved, but rather, that the stones were moved. Nor does it say Hubrich moved the stones. The only mention of Hubrich is that he “acknowledged [the graves] and that it would be within its right to place them within one grave with a marker.” Then the word: “Disgusting.”

Initially in June, Hubrich and his attorneys with the Morningstar Law Group filed the defamation suit against “John Doe.” Then in July, Hubrich named his alleged antagonist — Marie Mahoney, of 817 Orange Factory Road. He then petitioned the court to take a deposition from her husband, Patrick, whose photo appeared on the website (he was holding a baby deer who reportedly had tried to cross the road) to try to prove it.

Marie Mahoney could not be reached for comment. However, Patrick Mahoney sent a letter to the court asking not to be deposed because Hubrich’s allegations were false. Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson denied Mahoney’s request. As of Aug. 28, Hubrich’s attorneys can depose Patrick Mahoney “and other non parties … for the purpose of investigating the defendant’s identity.”

Meanwhile, Hubrich has started his own counter-website: orangefactoryroad.com.