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Contaminated Florence storm waters pose ‘dire’ threat, environmental group warns

Duke Energy said Thursday that three inactive coal ash basins in Goldsboro, North Carolina, are underwater after Hurricane Florence. The electric utility said it's monitoring the site and only a small amount of ash has leaked. But the heavy flooding has environmentalists worried about other sites and other hazards. John Yang learns more from Will Hendrick of Waterkeeper

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As rescuers continue to evaluate the human toll of Florence, ongoing flooding is posing serious environmental risks.

    Floodwaters are seeping up — sweeping up chemical pollutants and animal waste, leaving environmental groups worried about the long-term effects and the impact on public health.

    John Yang has our story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in North Carolina, those concerns arising after Duke Energy said today that three inactive coal ash basins in Goldsboro are underwater. The electric utility said it's monitoring the site, and only a small amount of ash has leaked.

    Coal ash is a byproduct of coal burning that contains toxic metals like mercury and arsenic. For decades, it's usually been stored in open-air pits filled with water, though Duke Energy says the Goldsboro site is covered by forestland.

    But the heavy flooding has environmentalists worried about other Duke Energy coal ash sites. And there are other hazards. The flooding breached dams at more than 40 lagoons on hog farms, spilling pig waste into the floodwaters. Also in those waters, the carcasses of millions of chickens, turkeys, hogs and wild animals killed in the storm.

    Will Hendrick is a staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. It's an advocacy group that's been conducting aerial surveys in the Carolinas to identify contaminated sites after her Florence hit. He joins me now via Skype from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

    Mr. Hendrick, thanks for joining us.

    What is your assessment of the current public health threat from the waters in the storm — in the flood area right now?

  • Will Hendrick:

    Well, it's dire.

    And it's a significant threat. And, sadly, I think it is one that will continue to increase as floodwaters continue to rise. There are a number of sources of pollution, some of which you alluded to in your introduction.

    We are monitoring them closely. We are conducting both aerial monitoring and ground patrols and water quality sampling efforts to better understand that public health threat. Sadly, it is a threat that is exacerbated by decisions made by powerful industries with respect to their waste management.

  • John Yang:

    You say it's dire. I mean, in storms, you always have some — the floodwater is always contaminated. You have got sewage treatment plants that overflow even in heavy rains.

    What makes this worse in North Carolina than it might be someplace else?

  • Will Hendrick:

    Well, honestly, I think it's that we should have known better.

    In North Carolina, we have been hit in the past by hurricanes that have exposed the threat posed by inadequately stored and managed coal ash, posed by inadequately managed and stored waste from industrial animal agricultural operations.

    And, as recently as two years ago, we saw in Hurricane Matthew what floodwaters could do, what hurricanes could cause in terms of breaches, in terms of inundation, and in terms of releases of contaminants that, based on past experience, our leaders and our industries in this state should have acknowledged and should have mitigated by removing that imminent threat from our floodplains.

  • John Yang:

    We talked to do Duke Energy a little bit ago. They said that the Goldsboro site and the Wilmington site are the only two sites that they're concerned about. They say they're working with state environmental protection officials and that they're confident that there is no public health threat from the coal ash.

    What do you say to that?

  • Will Hendrick:

    Our response is that Duke Energy has shown time and again that it will understate the threat posed to public health and environmental quality by its own actions, and will under-report volumes discharged.

    It will understate the threat that its own facilities are under and, most importantly, will understate and try to diminish public understanding of or response to the threat posed by discharges of its coal ash and the constituents that are therein.

  • John Yang:

    You say that we should have known or recognized this threat, this problem.

    What, in your view and in your group's view, can be done or should be done to prevent this from being a problem in the future, in future storms?

  • Will Hendrick:

    Well, coal ash and swine waste and poultry waste should, for starters, not be stored in our 100-year floodplain.

    The fact is that all of Duke Energy's coal ash is stored in online pits within a half-a-mile of our rivers, lakes and streams. And there are currently 62 hog operations located in the 100-year floodplain in North Carolina and more poultry operations as well.

    And as a first step, given the increasing frequency and severity of the — these sorts of weather events, I think it's necessary and overdue that those waste impoundments, that those — that that waste be removed from those inherently vulnerable locations.

  • John Yang:

    Will Hendrick of the Waterkeeper Alliance, thank you very much.

  • Will Hendrick:

    Thank you.

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