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Floodwaters breach N.C. dam, threaten to push coal ash into river

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Water on North Carolina's Cape Fear River overwhelmed a Duke Energy cooling lake and adjacent coal ash dumps, causing a breach in a dam, the company said. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

By Ed Adamczyk and Danielle Haynes, UPI

A dam containing a lake owned by utility Duke Energy was breached by floodwaters Friday, potentially sending coal ash into the Cape Fear River, the North Carolina-based company said.

The company said floodwaters from Hurricane Florence overtopped the north end of Lake Sutton dam, causing water to spill over its walls and breach part of the dam on the southern end.

The water in the reservoir, which is adjacent to three landfills of coal ash, is flowing into the Cape Fear River -- which flows through North Carolina on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Duke Energy said there is no visible ash in the lake and it's not clear whether contaminants are flowing into the river.

"Cenospheres are moving from the 1971 ash basin to the cooling lake and into the Cape Fear River," the company said. "Cenospheres are lightweight, hollow beads comprised of alumni and silica that are a byproduct of coal combustion."

Duke Energy said it was making repairs to the dam at Sutton Lake, a 1,100-acre cooling lake near its coal-fired electrical power plant in Wilmington, N.C. The 45-year-old lake does not normally store coal ash and is used by the public as a fishing spot.

The spill into the lake prompted the company's highest alert level -- Level One -- for the dam on Thursday, a North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman said.

"Its all mixing," Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan told the Charlotte Observer. "We know that water is being discharged from the ash basin."

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said a breach would not noticeably change water levels on the river.

"Because of the really flooded conditions around the plant site, you are not likely to see a measurable change if you do experience a breach, so that's a positive," Culbert said

On Monday, the company said there was a spill of coal ash at a landfill at the Wilmington location and flooding at another near Goldsboro.

Coal ash is the fine byproduct left over after coal is burned to generate electricity. The substance is typically stored in landfills or basins to prevent it from contaminating the air and environment, but the top of the 20-foot-tall site at the L. V. Sutton Power Plant washed into Lake Sutton, which connects to Cape Fear River, on Saturday.

"The majority of displaced ash was collected in a perimeter ditch and haul road that surrounds the landfill and is on plant property," the company said in a statement.

The company said about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash, which contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury and other toxic heavy metals, was washed away.

"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," the company said.

Meanwhile, about 70 miles to the west, the tiny town of Nichols, N.C., was completely inundated with floodwaters for the second time in two years. After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the town of about 400 people had to completely rebuild and the mayor, Lawson Battle, fears they'll have to do so again.

He said about 60 percent of the town had flood insurance -- up from 40 percent at the time of Matthew. That year, the town received almost no federal or state disaster aid.

"I haven't seen [disaster aid] being used for its purpose -- not at all. It put a roof on one home in Nichols," Battle told the Post and Courier in South Carolina.

Every road leading into the town was closed Friday, and everyone had been evacuated. Even the building serving as the town hall, police station and library was flooded with several feet of water. Town Manager Santee Rogers said officials removed the most important paper documents from town hall before the floodwaters came.

"There's nothing we can do now but be thankful we got out," she said.

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