HURRICANE FLORENCE: Environmental woes follow storm's floodwaters

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‘A gigantic flood event is going to create a witch’s brew of nasties, no matter how you cut it’

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Hurricane Florence’s dozens of inches of rain have caused environmental problems throughout North Carolina, with the state’s southeastern corner suffering major problems.

From fish kills to water quality conditions to sewer spills, there have been issues cropping up nearly daily.

Here are some of the more major ones that have risen to the surface since Hurricane Florence dropped more than 2 feet of rain in parts of the Cape Fear region:

Water main

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) officials made emergency repairs in Saturday’s overnight hours around a water main that supplies about two-thirds of Wilmington’s drinking water.

Floodwaters on U.S. 421 washed out a section of the road near the New Hanover-Pender county line, eroding the road’s shoulder and exposing part of the pipe. CFPUA staff worked until 3:30 a.m. Saturday to fill the area around the pipe with material, helping prevent further erosion.

“The concern was that if erosion continued, it would undermine the pipe completely,” CFPUA’s Executive Director Jim Flechtner said.

Owned by the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority, the water main — which supplies raw water to the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant just north of downtown Wilmington — runs under U.S. 421 before turning 90 degrees and running along the road’s shoulder, he said.

“Right now, it’s protected from the washout,” Flechtner said.

A more permanent solution will be enacted as floodwaters recede further and N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) crews repair the road itself.

“We were concerned about it Friday night, we took quick action and we were able to get it stabilized,” Flechtner said.

Coal ash

Monday, staff from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was on-site at the Sutton Plant along with N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) staff, according to Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman.

Friday, the swollen Cape Fear River topped the dam between the river and Sutton Lake, as well as a cofferdam withholding coal ash at the 1971 ash basin. The earthen dam also breached at several points, with water clearly gushing from its damaged edges

Environmental groups immediately expressed concern that coal ash may be entering the river and floating downstream. Duke, meanwhile, has insisted only hollow balls known as cenospheres are escaping the basin — and do not pose a serious threat to human health.

The crews were inspecting the site and conducting sampling, Martin said, but she was not immediately sure where it was taking place.

DEQ staff inspected the site Saturday via boat and took samples at that time, with results potentially back in mid-week.

Sunday afternoon, Duke released results of its own sampling which, the company said, showed there was little difference between water quality upstream and downstream from the plant.

Fish kill

Around the edges of Greenfield Lake, hundreds of dead fish have gathered, an event one expert said could potentially have been caused by the massive amount of debris littering the water.

Larry Cahoon, a University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) biologist, said, “A tremendous amount of organic matter has been blown into the lake just like the rest of Wilmington. There’s a tremendous amount of dead and dying leaves in there, and they’re going to consume most of the oxygen.”

The dozens of inches of rain dropped on Wilmington that were swiftly followed by hot, still days in which the lake was littered with leaves, branches and other organic material.

Still, Cahoon said, the fish kill likely has not resulted in total die-offs for the lake’s populations of bass, carp and sunfish.

“I suspect there’s been a lot of refuge in shallow water for the fish,” Cahoon said. “It’s pretty hard to wipe out a fish population altogether. I think they’ll recover with time.”

It is also likely, Cahoon said, that other pollutants found their way into Greenfield Lake, further diluting water quality there. CFPUA, for instance, reported three separate manholes that had sanitary sewer overflows during the course of Hurricane Florence’s flooding.

“A gigantic flood event,” Cahoon said, “is going to create a witch’s brew of nasties, no matter how you cut it.”

DEQ has not yet received a report of a fish kill at Greenfield Lake, Bridget Munger, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

In typical circumstances, Munger said, fish kills are investigated by regional offices, with data collected and sent to the agency’s Water Sciences section for further analysis.

“The report may have been directed to the Division of Water Resources Wilmington Regional office,” Munger wrote, “but that office has been closed since the storm.”

Low dissolved oxygen levels — such as the conditions caused by Cahoon — are the most common cause of fish kills, Munger added.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at