Coal Ash Wednesday: Here come the sludge

And this will be fouling the Neuse River for a long time to come:

Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee power plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong. “There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying on the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation. Cenospheres, hollow balls of silica and aluminum that are coal ash byproducts, were floating on the water. But cenospheres are not entirely innocuous; they often contain arsenic and lead, just like the coal they came from.

This is one of the coal ash sites Duke Energy was ordered to relocate, but in late 2016 they sought for and received approval to recycle that ash instead. In other words, it shouldn't have been there to leak out. At least not in the volume it did. But of course that "volume" is hard to quantify, since we can't trust Duke Energy to be honest about its reporting:

Duke Energy officials said only a small amount of ash had been released, even though photos taken by riverkeepers and DEQ showed water gushing through dike walls. Ash puddled like pudding outside of the inactive basin boundaries, and a “potential ash/sediment cloud” was discovered by state inspectors in the floodwaters.

“Past similar experience in Hurricane Matthew shows only a small amount of ash would be displaced with no measurable environmental effect,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert.

“There’s no way that Duke can know how much ash was spilled,” Starr countered.

It was a (huge) mistake to allow Duke Energy to choose HF Lee as one of their recycling sites, since these coal ash impoundments lie smack in the middle of a floodplain. It should have been one of the first ash basins to be excavated and put elsewhere, but since the local community is predominantly black and poor, nobody really cared:

A mere 10 days before Hurricane Florence struck, more than a dozen people, including several from the Rosewood neighborhood just north of the plant, spoke at a public hearing to urge state environmental regulators to further strengthen the rules governing coal ash landfills, as well as the beneficiation facility proposed for Lee.

“No process is 100 percent safe,” said Wesley Garner of Goldsboro. “Fly ash will find a way out. We’re doomed in my Rosewood community.”

The southern boundary of the Rosewood community. which is predominantly Black, is less than a mile from H.F. Lee. Of the 42 households that have been offered alternate sources of water because of contaminated wells — or the potential for contamination — many are from Rosewood.