Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Florence made landfall along the coast of North Carolina, Duke Energy Corp.'s L.V, Sutton combined-cycle natural gas plant remains offline, and the company continues to assess the environmental impact of flooded coal ash ponds.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said workers at the plant are "still performing equipment inspections and evaluating a return to service date."
Flooding from Hurricane Florence, which made landfall Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach, N.C., prompted Duke Energy on Sept. 21 to shut down the 625-MW L.V. Sutton natural gas plant in Wilmington. The company said one large breach and several smaller breaches caused water to exit Sutton Lake, a former cooling pond, into the Cape Fear River and into the natural gas plant property.
Heavy rainfall from the deadly storm also flooded coal ash impoundments at the Sutton site and Duke Energy's H.F. Lee Energy Complex in Goldsboro, N.C. The company disputes claims by the Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups that coal ash pollution at Sutton Lake has reached "insanely toxic" levels.
"This claim is simply fear mongering to advance their agenda. We have, in fact, been testing water quality in Sutton Lake for many days. The facts and scientific evidence tell us the water quality in the lake remains within state surface water standards for arsenic and other elements that are most relevant to coal ash," Culbert said.
"The differences between river quality upstream and downstream of the plant are negligible and show no concern for the public or environment related to coal ash managed at the Sutton site," Culbert said.
Duke Energy previously acknowledged that "three small, inactive ash basins" at the H.F. Lee site were flooded. The company estimated that enough ash to fill the bed of a pickup truck was displaced from the third basin, similar to the impact from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Cenospheres, which are lightweight, hollow beads composed of alumina and silica, also were released during the "historic flooding" at both sites, the company said.
Duke Energy, however, disputes testing done by the Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper that shows "levels of arsenic nearly 18 times higher than the North Carolina standard for drinking water supply and fish consumption" at the H.F. Lee site.
The company maintains that "water quality is well protected" near these coal ash sites and certain environmental groups are trying to "advance their extreme agenda to excavate all coal ash basins."
"That would burden North Carolinians with the most expensive, most disruptive plan that can do more harm to the environment than good," Culbert said. "They wish to excavate all ash, with no viable solution on where it would go, while we believe science and engineering should inform site-specific plans."