Duke Energy Corp. grappled with deadly Hurricane Florence’s aftereffects as a breach in a coal-ash landfill worsened and its Brunswick nuclear plant declared a low-level emergency because of flooding.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared an “unusual event” this weekend at the atomic plant on North Carolina’s soaked southern coast due to “site access issues,” but said there were no safety concerns. An engineer said roads around the plant were largely impassable and that supplies were being flown in to stranded workers.
About 30 miles to the north, a Duke landfill in Wilmington holding potentially toxic coal ash suffered further damage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Duke said about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash flowed from its Sutton Plant near the Cape Fear river. While the EPA called it a second breach, the company said it’s all part of the same “erosion event.”
“The next few days will be long ones as flooding continues,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a briefing Monday.
Record-setting, still-rising floods covering much of eastern North Carolina are preventing a comprehensive assessment of Hurricane Florence’s damage. Meanwhile, North Carolina will be dealing with the deluge for at least two weeks, said Wylie Quillian, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
While a storm this size typically might cause about $12 billion in losses, Florence could cost the region about $22 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler for Enki Research. About $2.5 billion of the losses might be covered by private insurance, according to catastrophe modeler Karen Clark & Co.
“Florence is still trying to crack the top 10 U.S. storms, and with all the post-storm flooding might well make it,” Watson said.
Duke Energy, the biggest power producer in the Carolinas, was taking much of the brunt. Dan Bacon, a senior operations engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he had been sent to the company’s Brunswick plant and gotten stuck along with Duke workers. On Monday, provisions were brought in by two helicopters, he said.
“I had pancakes and bacon and eggs and sausage that was cooked for breakfast,” he said. “People have been sleeping in cots in different office areas, conference rooms, places that aren’t directly in the power plant.”
“Spirits have been generally good, as far as I can tell,” he said.
The coal ash, a pollutant that has become a major issue in the state after previous spills, was a more sensitive concern. Duke Energy said Sunday that the release at a closed plant — enough to fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized pool, and which can carry arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium — was contained and poses no imminent threat.
On Monday, Reggie Cheatham, the EPA’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, told reporters on a conference call that a new portion of the landfill eroded. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan disputed the EPA’s characterization of it as a second breach.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality will try Monday to inspect the landfill, spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said in an email. Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that after this storm, the state must ensure that Duke Energy makes the landfill able to withstand floods and hurricanes.
“Duke Energy certainly should not be allowed to continue to dispose of millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits beside rivers in North Carolina, when it has not adequately designed or maintained a modern landfill,” he said in an email Monday.
The landfill’s condition was just one of Florence’s mysteries. Officials don’t know the full effect on massive industrial agriculture complexes, or how long it will take to restore power. They don’t know the damage from wastewater discharges in cut-off Wilmington and Johnston County, North Carolina. Nor is it clear whether efforts to drain waste-processing facilities for hog farms succeeded before rainfall that reached 40 inches in places.
At least 17 people have died in the storm, according to the Associated Press. About 2,600 people and 300 animals have been rescued in North Carolina and more than 14,000 people are in shelters, officials said.
In Wilmington, 23 truckloads of supplies made it in Monday morning, but officials were planning to bring in hospital and other emergency personnel by air. Hundreds of search-and-rescue boats cruised inundated streets in the state’s sodden east.
Tammy Proctor, a spokeswoman for the Pender County Sheriff’s Department, said six helicopters, rescue boats and crews with five-ton trucks are picking up residents stranded on their rooftops.
“All we’re doing is life-saving activities,” Proctor said. “A lot of us in here right now have ceilings caving in. Trees are down everywhere.”
Florence was wreaking havoc in myriad ways:
More than 480,000 homes and businesses from Virginia to South Carolina were without electricity as a result of the storm, according to utility websites. The North Carolina Department of Transportation advised motorists not to travel through the state because several stretches of Interstate 95 and Interstate 40 are flooded. Nine CSX Corp. locomotives and five rail cars in a 125-car train derailed near Lilesville about 6 p.m. Sunday. Washed-out tracks were the cause, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said. About 20 miles south, a sinkhole opened near Chesterfield, South Carolina, and almost swallowed a tractor-trailer, said Chief Deputy Cambo Streater. The driver was uninjured, he said. The body of a 1-year-old was recovered Monday in North Carolina after his mother lost her grip when her vehicle encountered rushing water, according to the Union County Sheriff’s Office.