A breach was discovered Wednesday in a 1.2-billion-gallon cooling pond dam at Duke Energy’s retired H.F. Lee power station in North Carolina, just minutes after the company issued a statement affirming that the dam was holding up well as record floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew receded.
“Ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely; in fact, we’ve been pleased with their good performance during the historic flooding Hurricane Matthew brought to eastern North Carolina,” Duke reported around noon Wednesday. Within minutes or a couple of hours, the Waterkeeper Alliance and a Raleigh, NC TV station had footage of the dam breach.
“When families are being threatened by some of the worst flooding in North Carolina’s history, they should not also have to worry about Duke Energy’s dams collapsing,” said Waterkeeper staff attorney Pete Harrison and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. “This failure likely happened because the river has begun to recede, which is when structural problems often develop. Like so many of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds across the state, the cooling pond at Lee has a long history of structural problems—these are disasters waiting to happen.”
The company continued to maintain that a 120-acre coal ash pond at H.F. Lee, which took severe damage from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, is operating safely.
The 382-megawatt H.F. Lee generating station consisted of three coal-fired and four oil-fueled units that were shut down in 2012.
Duke claimed it first heard about the breach thanks to a WRAL-TV helicopter crew and thanked the station for spotting the 50-foot crack. “We are really grateful for their good timing, which allowed us to respond and put our emergency protocols into effect,” said Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert.
“But the timing did cause some embarrassment. At noon Wednesday, Duke had put out a press release criticizing the Waterkeeper Alliance environmental group for raising what Duke considered inaccurate and inappropriate concerns about the safety of coal ash ponds in the floods caused by the rising Neuse River in the wake of Matthew,” the Charlotte Business Journal reports. “The alliance had already raised the possibility that flood waters could undermine the ash pond dam as they receded Wednesday.”
The manager of Waterkeeper’s Clean and Safe Energy Campaign, Donna Lisenby, chided Duke for “shooting the messenger,” noting that “if they would spend the effort fixing their coal ponds that they spend criticizing people like us, maybe we could stop talking about this stuff.”
Earlier in the week, Think Progress published an overview of the risks to the state’s coal infrastructure and the impacts for local residents. “Coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal for power, contains toxins like arsenic, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, and is often stored in unlined pits known as storage ponds,” explained correspondent Natasha Geiling. “These unlined pits can leach toxic material into groundwater, but also pose a threat to nearby communities and water bodies if they are breached, or the dikes holding back the toxic slurry of coal ash fail,” as happened at another site in North Carolina in 2008.
As of 2014, Duke had nearly 108 million tons of coal ash stored in 32 ponds across the state.