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The impact of Hurricane Matthew on North Carolina dams

Hurricane Matthew North Carolina (2).jpg

Sarah Kate Purnell
  Staff Writer

In late September, Hurricane Matthew shook North Carolina, bringing damage throughout the state, much of it from dam failures.

Of the at least 17 dams that failed as a result of the storm, 13 of them are in the local Cape Fear River Basin. The failure of dams caused hazardous flooding conditions across the eastern portion of the state.

“About 6.5 million gallons more[,]”  News & Observer’s Martha Quillin wrote, ”That’s how much water leapt from the little lake in the Rayconda neighborhood in Fayetteville into the big lake when the dam between the two impoundments broke as a result of intense hurricane rain. It severed Ancon Drive – the only safe road in and out of the neighborhood.”

“Regular inspections and safety code enforcement efforts can’t guarantee that dams won’t break, but they can prevent loss of life and excessive damage to property and infrastructure,” Dam Safety Chief of Regional Operations Brad Cole said, as quoted by Quillin.

Among the damages from Hurricane Matthew, the H.F. Lee Power Plant, owned by Duke Energy in Goldsboro, NC, took a considerable hit. A break in a portion of the cooling pond at the H.F. Lee facility had a minor impact on the Neuse River Basin.

The break was about 50 to 60 feet wide, with Duke Energy saying that less than an inch of water leaked into the Neuse River Basin.

“Once floodwaters started to recede, engineers were able to inspect the inactive ash basins at the site and did notice that some material, including coal ash, had left the outside berm of the inactive basins.” Zenica Chatman at Duke Energy stated. ”We contacted NCDEQ who came out and conducted a site visit and concluded that a minimal amount of ash had left the basin; not enough to fill the bed of an average pickup truck.”

Cenospheres were also found in the water as a result of the break.

“Cenospheres are microscopic, hollow beads that are a by-product of coal burning power plants.” Chatman explained, “They are inert, lighter particles that clump together when wet and are made largely of alumina and silica. They have different chemical properties than other types of fly ash particles. They are often harvested and beneficially used as fillers in a number of products, including fabric, bowling balls, tile, insulation and paint. When the cenospheres were discovered, NCDEQ returned to the site a second time to inspect the area where the cenospheres were found and determined that this did not change their overall conclusion of the amount of ash that had been released.”

Chatman stated that Duke Energy continued testing the water basin and has continued to find no ash-related particles in the Neuse River Basin since the breakage.

“We’ve already started cleanup of the cenospheres and submitted our repair and cleanup plans to the state.” Chatman stated,  “We will continue to work with the regulators to determine the best path forward.”

Witnesses in the Neuse River area claimed to see fly ash in the water and coating flooded trees. Reports by the Waterkeeper Alliance indicate a study from Appalachian State that found coal ash in rivers as a result of Hurricane Matthew.

Cleanup efforts continue throughout North Carolina, repairing storm and flood damage.

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