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State Officials Say No Elevated Levels Of Metals In Neuse River

A thin film of coal ash coats trees and vegetation in an inactive ash basin at the HF Lee plant. As expected, the area was flooded by Hurricane Florence.
c/o Duke Energy
A thin film of coal ash coats trees and vegetation in an inactive ash basin at the HF Lee plant. As expected, the area was flooded by Hurricane Florence.

Regulators with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality say their tests on the Neuse River show no elevated levels of dangerous metals in the water.

The results came as a relief to Duke Energy, but were in direct conflictwith tests taken by the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy group.

Downpours from Hurricane Florence caused flooding at two Duke Energy power plants: The H.F. Lee plant on the Neuse River near Goldsboro, and the Sutton Plant on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. Both plants now use natural gas for power generation, but both still have basins that hold coal ash from a time when those operated as coal-fired plants. Those basins are being emptied, but still contain some ash.

Coal ash contains dangerous heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury, and there was widespread concern that flooding caused ash to spill into waterways.

Duke had said its tests showed there were no elevated levels of heavy metals in the either the Neuse or the Cape Fear. Waterkeeper Alliance said its testsshowed levels of arsenic in the Neuse that were 18 times safe levels.

These latest tests from state regulators agree with what Duke has reported. The state results are only from the Neuse; test results from the Cape Fear have not been released.

"(DEQ's) findings validate our testing approach and results, and more importantly demonstrate that flooding at the H.F. Lee plant has not affected water quality," wrote a Duke Energy spokesman in an email following the state making its test results public.

Still, the Waterkeepers argued the state's tests were done too late. Some of the most severe flooding occurred on Sept. 20 and Sept. 21, but DEQ gathered its water samples on Sept. 23. Before the state's test results were released, the Alliance argued the DEQ results would be diluted.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan pushed back at that assertion. He said that "our staff safety comes first" and noted that the governor and highway patrol had issued travel restrictions. "We didn't want to become another rescue," Regan said.

In its test results release, DEQ also noted that it took multiple samples, which it said "provides a more complete snapshot of conditions as opposed to one sampling location."

Duke Energy has a history of spilling coal ash into waterways. In 2015, the company pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $102 million for its violations. It also agreed to move coal ash away from pits close to waterways into lined basins that can more safely secure the ash.

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.
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