Environment

Two breaches in Sutton coal ash landfill, plus flooding at three inactive ash basins at Lee plant

Portion of a slope collapsed at the Sutton coal ash landfill, the result of flooding. (Photos: Courtesy Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper)

Rising rivers and historic flooding are hampering the state and Duke Energy from fully assessing the extent of the damage to coal ash landfills and basins in eastern North Carolina, but there are reports of breaches at the Sutton plant in Wilmington and flooding at HF Lee in Goldsboro.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette told Policy Watch that he saw two breaches at the Sutton plant’s coal ash landfill, one about 30 feet wide and the other roughly 50 feet. He also described water pouring through a berm. “After 90 minutes, the contents had been emptied out,” he said. “It was a lot of water.”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said that area is a designated spot between landfill cells where rain flowing on the top  is released and discharged into a sediment basin. She added that the storm water from this area has not come into contact with coal ash.

It’s still unclear if the ash has reached Sutton Lake or the Cape Fear River. “We’ll be able to do a more thorough evaluation once flooding subsides,” Culbert said, and the utility “will make the needed repairs once the storm passes and conditions are safe to do,” Culbert said.

Another view of a breach at the Sutton plant in WIlmington.

State environmental officials are also sending inspectors to the site once it is safe. Riverkeepers are also monitoring the area, both in boats and from the air.

The new landfill is under construction, and when complete, will hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells. As sections are completed capped and closed, Culbert said, “these kinds of events will be much less likely to occur.”

Wilmington has received 2 feet of rain over the past five days; the city is largely cut off from the rest of the state by flooding.

In Goldsboro, where the Neuse River is expected to crest at near-historic levels, the active ash basin at HF Lee “is performing well,” Culbert said, but the three inactive ash basins have had flooding. They are low-lying basins in a wooded area, and likewise took on water during Hurricane Matthew. During that 2016 storm, the Neuse River topped out at 29.7 feet, a record. Current forecasts from the National Weather Service predict it will crest at 27.1 feet by Tuesday.

“Past similar experience in Hurricane Matthew shows only a small amount of ash would be displaced with no measurable environmental effect,” Culbert said.

However, after Matthew, old stormwater containing ash entered with the river. Subsequent Duke sampling showed that levels of copper were elevated above water quality standard of 2.7 parts per billion. There were small increases in arsenic levels, but below drinking water standards.

Also during Hurricane Matthew, the inactive basins released coal ash — state regulators estimated the amount would fill the bed of a pickup truck — and cenospheres. Duke and DEQ both maintained that cenospheres, hollow balls of silicone and aluminum, are inert. However, these hollow balls can also contain arsenic and other heavy metals that are also present in fly ash.

“To say that there ‘will be no measurable effect’ does a disservice to all North Carolinians. It’s just plain wrong,” countered Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. He rode in boat on the Neuse after Hurricane Matthew  and scooped up ash and cenospheres from the river. “It was like a winter wonderland.”

Afterward, DEQ required Duke to submit a plan of action, including additional sampling and removal of the cenospheres from nearby wetlands. HF Lee is also on the list of plants where the ash basins will be excavated and the material placed in lined landfills.

 

 

Environment

DEQ: Chemours says it shut down operations before Hurricane Florence; inspections to follow

 

The Chemours plant sits on 2,150 acres near the Cumberland/Bladen county line. The Cape Fear River lies adjacent to plant property, shown here on the far right of the screen. (Google maps, satellite view)

The Chemours plant, responsible for discharging GenX and other fluorinated compounds into the Cape Fear River for at least 30 years, reportedly suspended its operations before Hurricane Florence hit, according to state environmental regulators.

The facility hugs the Cape Fear River near the Cumberland-Bladen county line. North of the plant in Fayetteville, the river is currently at 40.59 feet, according to the National Weather Service, 5 feet above flood state.

The river is expected to reach 62.3 feet by Tuesday, which would exceed peak levels during Hurricane Matthew — 58 feet. the record is 68 feet.

Concerns about further degradation of the river and nearby private drinking water wells focus on the heavily contaminated soils and groundwater at the plant site. Rain and flooding could wash the compounds into the river and onto neighboring properties.

DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger said if conditions are safe enough for travel tomorrow, staff from the Division of Water Resources will conduct a site visit and restart sampling the discharge. The sampling equipment was turned off ahead of the storm, Munger said, to avoid damaging or losing the equipment.

However, considering that the river is forecast to rise for at least the next day, the site inspection could be delayed.

Environment

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.
 
Environment

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