What we know so far about Florence's environmental impact

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— As the floodwaters from Florence began receding, state and federal regulators started probing the extent of the environmental damage caused by a historic storm that dumped more than 30 inches of rain on some parts of North Carolina.

Here’s the latest information on a range of environmental concerns and longterm impacts of the overwhelming flooding the state received.

This story will be updated with new information as we receive it. See something we’re missing or a question we haven’t answered? Contact WRAL investigative reporter Tyler Dukes.

Coal ash

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for energy production, and contains harmful heavy metals like mercury and arsenic. Millions of tons of the ash are stored in basins across the state, and Duke Energy is in the process of excavating the sites as required by state law and court action.

Two Duke Energy plants with on-site coal ash storage – H.F. Lee in Goldsboro and L.V. Sutton in Wilmington – saw significant flooding during and after Florence. The facilities sit adjacent to the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, respectively. Although some coal ash appears to have been released from the two sites, it’s unclear at this point exactly how much actually escaped.

In Goldsboro, environmental groups that surveyed inactive coal ash basins normally covered in vegetation and tall trees saw those areas inundated by water from the Neuse. They also noted a gray, floating scum on the water’s surface that indicated the release of coal ash.

Duke Energy confirmed the presence of coal ash outside of the storage basins, but says it doesn’t believe much of the material has been released. The active ash ponds nearby did not appear to be affected by the flooding.

In Wilmington, an unfinished coal ash landfill at the Lee plant breached during heavy rainfall on Sept. 15, dumping what Duke Energy estimates to be 2,000 cubic yards of soil, water and ash into a perimeter ditch. A company spokesperson said crews were able to clean up the spill in a few days, but they’re unsure how much coal ash may have made it to Sutton Lake, a public recreation area the company uses as a cooling pond.

About a week later, after the adjacent Cape Fear River continued to flood its banks, several parts of the already inundated Sutton Lake dam failed. The lake does not store coal ash, but it’s separated from two decades-old ash ponds by less than 200 feet in some places. Those ponds did not appear to be impacted by the flooding.

Duke Energy says its own test results, released days after the breach, show the water quality of the Cape Fear has not been harmed. Other experts say heavy dilution from rainfall, as well as the cloudiness of the water churned by increased streamflow, will likely make such results inconclusive.

Environmental groups that inspected the site say they saw the same gray muck coating parts of the water’s surface as they did at the Lee plant, indicating a coal ash release.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which supplies drinking water to 200,000 people in the Wilmington area, said any coal ash release would pose no threat to treated water, because its intake is 20 miles upstream of the Sutton plant.

Environmental groups, as well as state regulators from the Department of Environmental Quality, took their own samples from the site and expect to get results back on Sept. 27 or 28.

As floodwaters rise, so do concerns about hog farms and waste lagoons

Hog lagoons

Most of North Carolina’s more than 2,000 hog farms, regulated by the state as confined animal feeding operations, have on-site, open lagoons that store animal waste. On a map, the ponds dot the North Carolina landscape and are concentrated in the southeast part of the state.

As of Sept. 26, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences reported that 5,500 hogs died as a result of Hurricane Florence. That’s almost double the number that died during Hurricane Matthew, but far below the 21,000 that died during Hurricane Floyd. The state’s total population of hogs, as of June 2018, was 8.9 million.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is tracking the number of hog lagoons and facilities that were inundated or close to overflowing in the storm.

By the agency’s count as of Sept. 26, 32 lagoons at 27 different facilities have discharged some amount of waste as flooding overtopped their berms. Five lagoons sustained some structural damage, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they were breached.

The agency has not yet released locations of the overtopped lagoons or estimates of how much waste might have been discharged.

NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning news site, reported this week that it had discovered a map and database from DEQ showing hurricane-related wastewater incidents, including hog waste releases. That map no longer appears to be online.

Aside from hogs, 4.1 million chickens, turkey and other poultry died in the storm, according to the state agriculture department.

Chemours Fayetteville Works


State regulators with the Department of Environmental Quality had to shut down their normal sampling operations near the site of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant along the Cape Fear River as Hurricane Florence bore down on the Carolinas.

The plant is the source of contamination from GenX, an industrial component in Teflon, firefighting chemicals, stain repellents and other products. The human health impacts of GenX and similar compounds, known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are not well studied. But some research points to a cancer link in animals. And the chemical is closely related to a compound called C-8 that triggered hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements over ties to cancer.

The plant no longer discharges GenX or its precursor compound into the river. But heavy rainfall often causes concentrations of GenX to spike in the Cape Fear River as rainwater passes through contaminated soil at the site.

According to DEQ spokesperson Bridget Munger, state regulators were able to access the Chemours site on Sept. 20 and restart normal sampling a few days later. They have to send the samples to an EPA lab in Athens, Ga., for testing, which is expected to take about six weeks.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which supplies drinking water to 200,000 people in the Wilmington area, has also sampled treated and untreated water for the presence of GenX. CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner said in an interview Sept. 24 that plant staff sent those samples off for testing that morning, and expect to get the results back in several weeks.

Flechtner said although the plant does a good job treating water for organic pollution, it has more trouble with manmade and hard-to-remove compounds like GenX and other PFAS.

That’s why they’re planning to keep a close eye on how the heavy rainfall impacted levels of the contaminants in the Cape Fear.

Wilmington flooding

Municipal waste

Flooding from Hurricane Florence caused several spills of untreated and partially treated wastewater from drinking water plants in the southeastern part of the state.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has not yet said how many treatment plants saw releases of wastewater, but the operators of these plants are required by law to notify the agency and the public when spills occur.

At the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wilmington, 5.25 million gallons of partially treated wastewater escaped into the Cape Fear River after two backup generators failed, according to the utility authority’s Lindsey Hallock. The discharge took place over nine hours on Sept. 14 until crews could make emergency repairs.

Hallock said the release was the largest one at the utility since it was formed 10 years ago.

Camp Lejeune reported the release of about 84,000 gallons of untreated sewage on Sept. 24, the result of heavy rainfall in the area. About 42,000 gallons of the wastewater made it to the New River, but base officials said the spill won’t impact the drinking water supply.

Benson, in Johnston County, estimated that 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater was released over the course of about a week from several manholes and a service location as heavy flooding inundated the town’s stormwater system.

Town spokesperson Tyler Douglas said 4 million gallons of water entered the system during Florence’s peak rainfall. That’s twice the amount the wastewater treatment plant is permitted to handle.

The sewage flowed into Driving Branch, a tributary in the Neuse River Basin.