Duke Energy’s flood maps reveal only part of the risk of a coal ash spill

By: - October 12, 2017 5:00 am


Above: The 311 Motor Speedway, a dirt track in Stokes County, is essentially a bowl that backs up to a creek. The track and the pit area would be inundated with at least 7 feet of coal ash and water if a dam and ash basin at Duke Energy’s Belew’s Creek plant were to fail. Race fans would have less than hour to leave before the contaminated waters arrived. (Photo: Lisa Sorg) Below: The inundation zone map of the area provided by Duke Energy. The red cross-hatched areas show where flooding would occur if there were a breach.

Saturday nights at the 311 Motor Speedway in rural Pine Hall smell of fast food and fuel. Wooden bleachers overlook the track, essentially a clay bowl, where under the bright lights, mini stock cars careen through the turns, monster trucks tear up mud bogs, and “Ucars” — souped up Hondas and Chevys and Fords — speed down the straightaways.

For an extra five bucks, you can sit in the VIP section, close enough to the track to feel the engines roar in your chest. From these premium seats, you could likely also see the infield begin to fill with coal ash and dirty water, should a basin at Duke Energy’s Belew’s Creek plant fail.

Facing litigation from the Southern Environmental Law Center, Duke Energy has made public previously secret information, including maps showing areas near 10 of its coal-fired power plants that would flood in the event of a basin breach.

The maps, available on the Duke Energy website, indicate what lies in harm’s way in a worst-case scenario: highways, farms and more than 200 buildings throughout the state, and presumably the people in them. The maps also list how long before the waters would arrive — as short as two minutes — and how deep they might be.

But the civil engineers who drew the maps caution that these are only estimates. In fact, the ground truth tells a more nuanced story, one with greater ramifications that an aerial view can convey. The potential property damage and loss of life from a coal ash disaster also amplifies longstanding concerns about the utility’s plan to cap some of its basins and leave the dry ash in place.

“We’ve always known these dams and ponds present a huge risk if they break,” said Katie Hicks, assistant director of  Clean Water for North Carolina. “It’s concerning that Duke didn’t want to make the information public.”

As Policy Watch reported in September, Duke had claimed that the information was confidential under statutes protecting homeland security and critical infrastructure. The utility did supply the information to local emergency managers, but on the condition that they sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting them from making the maps public.

At 135 feet high, the dam at the Belew’s Creek plant has been designated by state and federal officials as high hazard, because of the damage that could occur from a failure. Nonetheless, instead of excavating the ash, Duke plans to “dewater” the material, then leave it in place with a cap and liner in the basin.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the maps do not influence the utility’s closure plans for the basins. “The maps depict possible scenarios while the basins have water in them, so they are not really relevant to closure decisions since they will all be dewatered, adding an additional margin of safety,” she said. “We will safely remove the water from ash basins before we close them no matter what closure method is ultimately approved.”

But the best-laid plans aren’t foolproof, and it’s not unthinkable that a hurricane or torrential rainstorm could breach a dam. The Belew’s Creek plant and ash basin lie three miles upstream from the 311 Motor Speedway, which bills itself as the “Daytona of Dirt,” yet even at that distance, the track would flood. Already prone to flooding, the track abuts an unnamed creek that feeds the Dan River just beyond the tree line. “There’s been six or seven feet of water down there before,” a maintenance worker told me, as he prepared to don a leaf blower to sweep the bleachers of cigarette butts.

The water is only part of the problem, though. What the maps don’t tell you is that should a breach occur, a reverse 911 system would alert hundreds of race fans. Their cars packed into a nearby gravel lot, they would have 56 minutes to leave before the contaminated waters arrived. They would pour out onto US Highway 311, a dark, sinuous two-lane highway that connects with equally curvaceous back roads. The terrain in Stokes County is unforgiving, marked by steep slopes and high ridgelines that dip suddenly into low-slung valleys.

First responders, who on the weekends are composed of volunteers, would direct traffic north, toward Madison and away from Walnut Cove, where the waters — more than six feet in some places, are predicted to hit first.

Stokes County Emergency Management Director Brian Booe said his department works with Duke Energy on disaster exercises and drills, as well as annual reviews of the basin closure plans. Nonetheless, the possible scenarios, even if they’re unlikely, worry him.

“We’re a rural county,” Booe said. “We would need to call in regional partners and other counties. I tell people they need to prepare for three days. It would take that long to get state resources and even longer for the federal government.”

“It’s a huge wake up call,” said Caroline Armijo, who belongs to several citizens’ groups demanding that Duke remove the coal ash. “With the Eden spill, it was all contained in the river. This is not just a water event; this is a bunch of sludge.”

It would take just three minutes for ash-laden water to reach a home along Avery Creek Road in Arden, near Asheville. Within a half-hour, the water, filled with debris and contaminants, could be more than 12 feet deep.

Duke excavated its 1982 Asheville basin (so called because of the year it was built), but has not done so for its 1964 impoundment. That structure and its high-hazard dam sit along the French Broad River and near Interstate 26, the main north-south thoroughfare through Asheville.

“People who thought they were too far from sites to be affected will want to take a look at these maps,” said Hicks, who works in Clean Water for North Carolina’s Asheville office. “They could be very much at risk.”

Hicks and other environmental advocates, such as Appalachian Voices, which is helping Stokes County residents, are equally, if not more concerned about the underground risk.

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“A less likely but disastrous outcome” — a breach and subsequent flooding — “is much easier for people to get upset about,” Hicks said. “That is horrible, but there are chronic impacts: air emissions, contamination leaking into groundwater and drinking water wells air emissions.

“It’s a sunny day and it doesn’t seem like a disaster going on,” Hicks added. “It’s easy to forget about what’s going on underground.”


The Dan River and a dam beneath the Lindsey Bridge near Madison in Stokes County. Parts of Lindsey Bridge Road would flood in case of an ash basin breach at the Belew’s Creek plant. Heavy trucks use the road — and trains run along the tracks — to access brick plants. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Near the Belew’s Creek plant, the inundation zones spread across 27 miles along the Dan River. Race fans, trying to head away from floodwaters on Highway 311, would be cut off once they reached the town of Madison in Rockingham County. There, several homes on the western side of town would flood — two creeks and the Dan River hem in the highway — as would the town’s water plant on Lindsey Bridge Road.

In Stokes County, race fans could not go to Walnut Cove, which would be hit the hardest. Not only farmland, homes and businesses could be damaged, but also the town’s critical infrastructure. Wetlands are tucked in a curve along the west side of the Oldtown Road, said Caroline Armijo, who grew up in Walnut Cove. It’s in these wetlands where the town treats its sewage.

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On a recent afternoon, the breeze scattered fall leaves across the road and the sun broke through gray clouds. The stools were full at Checker’s, a grocery, grill and gas station between Madison and Pine Hall. Here women behind the counter were trying to hustle through several orders of chocolate malts, and men wearing camouflage seemed more interested in hunting than flooding.

“I’m grateful that the maps are out,” said Armijo, who now lives in Greensboro. “But I’m really concerned. People don’t realize the threat. I think people are oblivious.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.