Protesters outside a Duke Energy shareholders meeting in 2014.
Photo: Davis Turner Getty

Just a few days ago, Duke Energy, the largest utility company in North Carolina, said they weren’t concerned about the ponds of coal ash that might be flooded by Hurricane Florence. Now, at least one of those ponds has given way, releasing 2,000 cubic yards of the ash, according to NBC.

Coal ash is a highly toxic byproduct of coal power plants that is linked to respiratory illnesses and cancer. It contains heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium.

When one of the slopes of a pond at a closed power station outside of Wilmington, NC collapsed during the storm, Duke says that the ash within most likely flowed into their cooling pond, Sutton Lake. “The company hasn’t yet determined if the weir that drains the cooling pond was open or whether any contamination may have flowed into the swollen Cape Fear River,” NBC says.

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Megan S. Thorpe said the state will inspect the site as soon as they can. “DEQ has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record breaking rain event,” Thorpe told NBC. She added that the state will “hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”

It’s likely that other coal ash ponds will be impacted by the storm. A power station near Goldsboro was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and officials say it will probably flood again. Another cooling pond at a plant near Lumberton, NC, is expected to flood as well.

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“Unfortunately, Duke Energy has spent years lobbying and litigating and still has not removed the coal ash from its dangerous riverfront pits in the coastal area, some of which are in the floodplain,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center told NBC. “When a hurricane like Florence hits, we have to hope and pray that our communities do not suffer the consequences of years of irresponsible coal ash practices by the coal ash utilities.”

In 2015, Duke Energy were sentenced to pay a $102 million fine after pleading guilty to nine violations of the Clean Water Act for a record-breaking coal ash spill.

Coal ash isn’t the only concern for those worried about the environmental impact of the storm. Lagoons filled with waste from the pork industry and Superfund sites in the area could also contribute to environmental damage. Environmental groups and the EPA are monitoring these sites as the storm continues to batter the Carolinas.