Politics & Government

A recreational lake has high levels of coal ash, and it might not be the only one

Take a close look at a potential coal ash spill on the Cape Fear River

News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
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News & Observer reporters ride along with Waterkeeper Alliance to view a potential coal ash spill near Wilmington, N.C. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

Sutton Lake, a popular fishing and boating area in New Hanover County, has as much or more coal ash contamination at its bottom than was found in the Dan River, site of a 2014 coal ash spill, Duke University researchers found.

Sediments collected from Sutton Lake in 2015 and 2018 show that it has been a receptacle for multiple coal ash spills, scientists reported in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“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,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a news release.

Vengosh said in an interview that similar conditions may exist in other lakes near coal ash ponds.

Tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River in 2014 focused the state on the residue from coal-burning power plants and how to dispose of it. Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke Energy to dig up coal ash at six power plants, the Charlotte Observer reported. Duke Energy is appealing the order.

Sutton Lake was used to cool a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant that was closed in 2013. In a statement, a Duke Energy spokesman said Sutton Lake was meant to be a buffer between the coal plant and the Cape Fear River and that the Duke University researchers’ findings are not surprising.

“It is ludicrous to compare decades-old ash at the bottom of a manmade wastewater facility to anything found in conventional lakes and rivers,” Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton said in an email. “This wastewater facility did exactly what it was designed to do, serve as a buffer between our former coal plant and the Cape Fear river to keep the public and environment safe.”

“We’ve shared similar sediment results going back to the mid-90s with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, so these findings are not at all surprising,” Norton said. “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.”

Duke Energy said it has monitored fish in the lake for years and the data shows a “healthy, self-sustaining and balanced fish community.”

But the Duke University report so alarmed two Democratic legislators from New Hanover County that they are going to hold a news conference at Sutton Lake on Tuesday on their recommendations to the legislature, state officials, and the New Hanover County Health Department.

Flooding from Hurricane Florence took water from a nearby coal ash pond into Sutton Lake, the News & Observer reported. The state Department of Environmental Quality said the coal ash did not harm the Cape Fear River.

The 2018 lake sediments Duke University researchers tested were taken after Florence. The tests found high levels of metals including arsenic, selenium, copper and nickel.

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