Before and after imagery shows the breach at Lake Sutton.
GIF: NOAA

Fears about toxic pollution in the wake of Florence’s floodwaters are already being realized. On Friday, Duke Energy confirmed a possible coal ash spill next door to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. That river serves as a source of drinking water for residents living downstream in Wilmington.

The AP broke the news of what site owner Duke Energy called a “developing situation.” Florence’s floodwaters have taken their toll on two key parts of the L.V. Sutton Power Station. First, they breached a dam holding back Lake Sutton, which sits next to the site of a former coal plant that now houses a natural gas facility. That water is flowing into the Cape Fear River, which in itself wouldn’t be that big a deal except for the fact that floodwaters also overtopped a retaining wall of a coal ash storage site sitting next to the lake.

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It’s unclear if coal ash is going into the river, but the AP reports that “[g]ray material that the company characterized as lightweight coal combustion byproducts could be seen Friday floating on the top of the lake.” Aerial images captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday clearly show the overtopped coal ash basin and lake flowing into the river.

“The coastal region remains at risk from riverfront, primitive, unlined coal ash storage,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center, told Earther in the run up to Florence in what is now an extremely prescient statement.

The biggest concern is that the Cape Fear River is a water source for Wilmington, a city of 60,000 downstream from the coal ash site. The river has its own toxic legacy owing the chemical manufacturing that also takes places along its shores.

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Scientists found high concentrations of GenX, a chemical made by DuPont, in the river in 2016. The chemical is a member of the family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, a group of substances the Trump administration attempted to block a report on earlier this year because it was a “public relations nightmare.” Which is to say the people living in Wilmington were already fighting to clean up toxic water before Florence.

Coal ash, meanwhile, is full of toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic that can cause major health issues. This is the second confirmed coal ash spill since Florence dumped record rainfall on the Carolinas and the latest front in a slowly unfolding public health disaster. It’s another illustration of how climate change—which helps fuel heavier downpours—will challenge our infrastructure.

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Earther has reached out to the county government for clarification on how they’re dealing with and monitoring the situation and its impacts on drinking water, and we’ll update this post when we hear back.