Duke shuts natgas plant due to Florence floods, coal ash leak feared

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Friday's breach also resulted in flooding at Duke's 625-megawatt natural gas plant on the site off USA 421, leading to the power giant shutting that plant down. The area received more than 30 inches (75 centimetres) of rain from former Hurricane Florence, with the Cape Fear River expected to crest Saturday.

The current breach at the Wilmington site is separate from the rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill reported at the site last weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks.

Duke said Friday that the inundated basin at the plant contains about 400,000 cubic yards (305,820 cubic meters) of ash.

The company said water was flowing out of the south end of the lake in a second breach, and that cenospheres, hollow beads made of alumina and silica that are a byproduct of burning coal to create electricity, are leaking into the Cape Fear River. Water from the lake then flooded one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore.

Separately, company spokesman Paige Sheehan told Reuters they can not rule out the possibility that coal ash might have entered the Cape Fear River.

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This story will be updated.

Duke Energy's L.V. Sutton Energy Complex from I-140 on September 21, 2018.

"While the state is now in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities", the DEQ said in a Friday afternoon statement, adding that the state planned to conduct drone flights over the crippled dam.

Company officials said that because the river is already running high after the hurricane, they do not expect the breaches in the dam to affect the water level.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said Thursday that the dam containing Sutton Lake appears stable and they are monitoring the situation with helicopters and drones to react to what she called "an evolving situation".

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State regulators were awaiting the results of their own testing before determining whether there were any violations of clean-water-quality rules, said Megan Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency.

State inspectors were able to make it to Sutton on Tuesday and to collect samples from the area around the breached coal-ash landfill. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.

"What we don't know at this point is if any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River", said Mike Regan, secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029. In the Sutton facility, the ash is largely settled at the bottom, while water at the top is mixing with the Cape Fear River.

At the H.F. Lee Power Plant near Goldsboro on Thursday, three old coal-ash dumps capped with soil were underwater after flooding from the Neuse River. On Sunday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported that more than 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of partially treated sewage had spilled into the Cape Fear River after power failed at its treatment plant.

Staff from the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, visited the site by boat on Wednesday and took photographs and collected samples of gray-colored sludge and water that they said was washing off into the floodwaters. The group said the samples would be analyzed by a private lab to determine whether the gray muck contained coal ash.

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