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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

Researcher: Sutton Lake Site Of Numerous Coal Ash Spills

Duke Energy's power plant at Sutton Lake in Wilmington.
Duke Energy

A Duke University researcher says that Sutton Lake, near Wilmington, has been the site of numerous coal ash spills, both before and after Hurricane Florence.

"Our results clearly indicate the presence of coal ash at the bottom of Sutton Lake and suggest there have been multiple coal ash spills into the lake from adjacent coal ash storage facilities after, and even before, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence caused major flooding in 2018," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the research.

According to Vengosh and his colleagues from Duke and Appalachian State University, the amount of contaminants was more than what was found in streams following major coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 and the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014.

Duke Energy used water from Sutton Lake for cooling purposes for decades, when the power plant there burned coal. It was desingated as a public body of water in 2014, and is a popular recreational and fishing destination. It was inundated during Hurricane Florence in September. 

"What's happened at Sutton Lake highlights the risk of large-scale unmonitored spills occurring at coal ash storage sites nationwide," said Vengosh. "This is particularly true in the Southeast where we see many major land-falling tropical storms and have a large number of coal ash impoundments located in areas vulnerable to flooding."

Duke Energy says that Sutton Lake was designed as a buffer between storage basins and the nearby Cape Fear River, which serves as a source of drinking water for Wilimington.

"It is ludicrous to compare decades-old ash at the bottom of a manmade wastewater facility to anything found in conventional lakes and rivers," said Bill Norton, a spokesman with Duke Energy. "Most importantly, the results are not relevant to anyone’s health. We have decades’ worth of surface water tests and fish tests, all shared with regulators, that demonstrate Sutton Lake is well within water quality standards and the Sutton fishery is healthy and thriving."

State environmental officials have reported no significant pollution in the river since Florence.

Florence dumped ore than 30 inches of rain in the Wilmington area before the Cape Fear River  crested and remained at flood stage for days last September. The flooded river cut several holes through the walls of Sutton Lake. Lake water then flooded one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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