Water flows from the Sutton cooling lake exiting breach at south end back to river at the L.V. Sutton Power Station plant near Wilmington, N.C., in a photo released by Duke Energy on September 21, 2018.
Florence's floodwaters breached a dam holding back a large reservoir at a Wilmington power plant Friday, and coal ash from an adjacent dump could be flowing into the nearby Cape Fear River.
Duke Energy said Wednesday that water samples collected by its employees and tested at the company's own lab showed "no evidence of a coal ash impact" to Sutton Lake or the Cape Fear River.
A wall around one of the coal ash basins is underwater but they believe the ash is still in place, Paige Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Duke said.
Duke's handling of its ash waste has faced intense scrutiny since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
"While the state is now in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities", the DEQ said in a Friday afternoon statement, adding that the state planned to conduct drone flights over the crippled dam.
Duke said Friday that the inundated basin at the plant contains about 400,000 cubic yards (305,820 cubic meters) of ash.
"What we know is the Cape Fear River has spilled into the Sutton Lake", Michael Regan, director of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, said at Gov. Roy Cooper's press briefing Friday morning. Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and other toxic metals.
State officials said they have received reports that the earthen dam at one hog lagoon in Duplin County had breached over the weekend, spilling feces and urine.
According to the National Weather Service, the Cape Fear River in Wilmington is supposed to peak Saturday around 8 p.m. Duke recorded more than 33 inches of rainfall from Hurricane Florence.
State inspectors were able to make it Tuesday to a Wilmington power plant where a landfill breached last weekend, spilling enough coal ash to fill about 180 dump trucks.
A road leading to a public dock on the reservoir, which is popular for fishing and boating, was blocked off on Friday by Duke Energy.
At the site there are two coal-ash storage basins. The utility company paid $102 million in fines and restitution and pleaded guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations as a result. Duke said they had no indication those dumps at the H.F. Lee Power Plant were leaking ash into the river. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029. "While the state is now in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused by their coal ash facilities", the department said in a statement. The group said a private lab would analyze samples. Rivers are continuing to rise, and many parts of North Carolina remain under water.
Widespread flooding has also caused contamination by human and animal waste. On Sunday, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reported that more than 5 million gallons of partially treated sewage had spilled into the Cape Fear River after power failed at its treatment plant.