The Cape Fear River is a silt-brown artery that flows into the heart of Wilmington. We depend on it for our drinking water, and for our livelihoods by the trade and tourism it brings. Our relationship with it is ancient—north of the city you can still discern the slave-dug canals that remain from the pre-Civil War rice plantations. It’s no mistake that this matriarchal river flows past the city. Wilmington was built on the river.
It’s the largest watershed in the state of North Carolina, with an enormous basin that encompasses over 9,000 square miles and one-third of the state’s population. The river is monitored and guarded by Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW), an environmental advocacy group that, since 1993, has served to give a voice to the river, protect and improve the water quality, and educate people on potential hazards.
Kemp Burdette, a Wilmington native, ex-Navy and Peace Corps and Current Cape Fear Riverkeeper, is a tall, tanned man wearing a green polo shirt with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He’s folded into the driver’s seat of his beige Honda Civic, which rattles over this rutted, unpaved road. I’m riding shotgun, peering out the windshield at the red-and-white smokestacks that loom overhead. Kemp is taking me to see the slurry ponds.
Some background information: Coal slurry is a baneful sludge that’s a by-product of coal-fired power plants. It’s made by mixing coal ash, a fine, incombustible substance left over after coal is burned for energy, with water to weigh the ash down so it doesn’t blow away. Coal ash, according to the CFRW website, contains a “laundry list of toxins,” including arsenic, selenium, manganese, and mercury, to name just a few.
Five hundred and fifty-five million gallons of this toxic substance are “contained” in two unlined lagoons at the L.V. Sutton power plant, located on the northwest Cape Fear just a few miles upstream of downtown. North Carolina proudly boasts 37 coal ash ponds at 14 plants, and more high-hazard ponds (meaning that a pond failure will likely result in loss of human life and damage to the ecosystem and infrastructure) than any other state. Not a single pond in North Carolina has a composite liner, and only four have liners at all. The lack of a liner in these lagoons means that the carcinogenic heavy metals can seep into the groundwater, where they can then migrate into the river.
Fifteen test wells have been dug around the coal slurry lagoons at the Sutton plant to sample the groundwater for toxins. The wells probe outward from the ponds at both the 250-feet and 500-feet compliance boundaries and at the property line. The results they returned were worrisome. Arsenic levels were measured at an astounding 27 times the maximum-safe federally set levels for groundwater. Manganese levels peaked at 26 times the safe amount, and thallium levels clocked in at three. Not only are the toxins not contained within the pond, but they have at least spread to beyond the property line. This isn’t the first time this has happened: The Sutton plant has recorded over 100 violations in the last two years alone.
The land here is scrubby and sandy. Stunted pine trees provide shade for the “No Trespassing” signs, and little yellow flowers peep out of the grass next to the road. We can’t see the lagoons from the car, but there’s a gated access path that leads to them running up the slope of the barbed-wire-topped embankment. “Right there,” says Kemp, stopping the Civic and pointing. “It breached just to the right of this little access road.”
Almost two years ago, on September 28th, the retaining wall for the pond failed and released around 2,000 gallons of slurry, making a plume about a hundred feet long and eight feet deep. Earlier at his office Kemp showed me some aerial photos he took of the breach. It looked like an enormous dusky smudge, like something you’d see leaking out of a volcano, juxtaposed against the green of the grass—a cancerous scar on the landscape.
The river flows past, three-quarters of a mile on the other side of the lagoon, behind a fragile buffer of cypress trees. “These [dams, which retain the slurry in the ponds,] were built 60-plus years ago,” Kemp says. “They don’t really know in some cases how these things were built. They’re not even sure if they used coal ash to build the dams. The head of Dam Safety, Steve McEvoy has no idea because no plans exist.”
Not only are the levees of an unknown composition, but the inspections which ensure the dam’s reliability are pathetically ineffective. The inspections are minimal and consist entirely of a visual once-over. There’s no engineering, no surveying. Kemp asked McEvoy if the ponds passed inspection just before they breached. They did.
Progress Energy announced in late 2009 that it plans to shut down the Sutton plant in 2014 and replace it with a plant powered by natural gas, another fossil fuel. Kemp thinks it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still not ideal.
“Keep in mind they’re still burning natural gas,” he says. “Then there are the questions of where they’re getting the gas from, and whether or not it was produced safely.” As of this time, they have no announced plans to deal with the coal ponds.
A recent lawsuit in South Carolina brought to South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) by the Catawba Riverkeeper brings a ray of hope to this ash-darkened scene. The August 20th settlement mandated that SCE&G enter into a binding agreement to remove and dispose of properly all 2.4 million tons of coal ash in their ponds by 2020. The suit was filed under the South Carolina Pollution Control Act, and cited similar circumstances of arsenic pollution in groundwater moving into the river.
We drive to the road’s terminus—a public boat ramp on Lake Sutton, the cooling pond next to the plant. There are no boats, but we see the cars of several fishermen parked next to the dock.
“Now, these aren’t sport fishermen,” Kemp explains. “These are not people who catch the fish and throw them back in the water. They go home and feed the fish they catch to their families because they’re trying to do the right thing and provide.”
He looks around. “I don’t see any warnings about fish consumption.”
The slurry ponds lurk behind the trees to the left of the ramp with deadly proximity. No fish tissue samples to monitor toxicity have been completed yet, but it’s on Kemp’s to-do list.
Scattered about the parking lot, signs warn ramp users without any trace of irony that “Littering is Illegal.” I point them out to Kemp. He gives a hollow laugh, but we both know it’s not funny. “So littering is illegal,” he says, “But leaching arsenic into people’s drinking water is O.K.”