Watchdogs monitoring environmental hazards from the air

Monitoring environmental conditions above Fayetteville
Monitoring environmental conditions above Fayetteville((Source: WBTV-Nich Ochsner))
Updated: Sep. 18, 2018 at 11:21 PM EDT
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FAYETTEVILLE, NC (WBTV) - Environmental watchdogs are using airplanes and helicopters to monitor conditions at some of the state’s largest open-air waste pits in the wake of torrential rains from Hurricane Florence.

On Tuesday, Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton and environmental attorney Pete Harrison with the organization Earth Justice loaded into a helicopter in Raleigh for several hours of flying.

The pair’s mission that day was to survey several coal ash ponds and other industrial sites in central North Carolina to ensure conditions were still holding up following Hurricane Florence.

The importance of the mission, they said, was underscored by the fact that 2,000 cubic of substance from a coal ash pond breached a damn at a plant near Wilmington days earlier.

The breach happened at the Sutton plant, owned by Duke Energy.

In a statement, Duke said the coal ash substance remained on property and was confined mostly be a retention ditch.

But Sutton and Harrison said the incident is an example of what can happen in situations with a lot of rain, like the one Florence brought to North Carolina.

“At the Sutton plant in Wilmington, a coal ash landfill is basically melting away with all this rain water,” Harrison said. “We’re worried about contamination into the Cape Fear River and Lake Sutton.”

On Tuesday, the pair flew over the Cape Fear plant in Chatham County.

They didn’t see much that caused alarm.

The flight also headed to Fayetteville to check the on the Chemours plant, which manufactures Gen-X, a compound that sparked alarm when it was discovered in Wilmington’s drinking water last year.

Sutton and Harrison are part of a group conducting monitoring flights across the state in the wake of Florence. They said they have to do these flights because there’s little other oversight in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

In a statement earlier this week, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said the agency was monitoring all coal ash ponds and other areas of potential environmental pollutants.

“Whenever you have a flood event like this, you worry that those facilities are going to be impacted and that pollution is going to be released,” Harrison said.

Sutton said the potential for disaster is high, since the coal ash pits are located near rivers and the environmental impact could be big.

“All these industrial solvents that we’re seeing, it doesn’t break down in traditional drinking water (filtration) process,” she said.

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