Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper at Sound Rivers Respond to News of Coal Ash Release from the Duke Energy H.F. Lee Facility in Goldsboro, NC



RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA — Late on Friday afternoon, Duke Energy informed the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality “that erosion caused by flooding from Hurricane Matthew may have led to the discharge of an unknown amount of coal ash.” Four of five retired coal ash ponds at the Lee plant near Goldsboro have been inundated since last Sunday. The submerged ponds contain over a million tons of coal ash, spread in a layer between four and ten feet thick across an area the size of 130 football fields. In a 2015 site assessment, Duke Energy reported high levels of toxic heavy metals in the flooded ponds, including arsenic, antimony, and thallium.

Pete Harrison, Staff Attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance said, “Duke Energy finally admitted the obvious: a million tons of coal ash has been sitting under the flooded Neuse River all week, and that ash is coming loose and spilling into the river.”

Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper for Sound Rivers said, “The Neuse River at Goldsboro remains above flood stage. Flood waters are still actively washing uncovered ash downstream and likely to continue for several more days. For the last six days, these old ponds have been eroding under water, so the only question is how much ash washed downstream to communities already struggling with record flooding and leaking waste from flooded industrial meat facilities whose dams are also inundated.”

Last year, Duke Energy pled guilty to federal crimes for mismanaging coal ash at the H. F. Lee facility. The United States Department of Justice prosecuted Duke Energy for unlawfully discharging coal ash and/or coal ash wastewater from impoundments at the Lee facility and others, levying $102 million in fines and restitution and placing the corporation on probation for five years.

Earlier this week, Duke Energy failed to detect a school-bus-sized breach in the cooling pond dam at the H.F. Lee facility for upwards of 24 hours. The company learned of the dam failure after they were notified by a news crew that spotted the breach from a helicopter.  Here is a timeline of events:

Tuesday October 11

  • 2:34 pm – This aerial photo taken by Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Travis Graves showed the 50-foot long breach in the cooling pond dam at the H.F. Lee facility.

Wednesday October 12

  • 9:45 am – A Duke Energy inspection crew in a helicopter flew over the cooling pond dam. Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert inaccurately reported “the dam was intact and showed no signs of stress” at that time.
  • Between 10 am and 12 noon- A WRAL news helicopter filmed the 50-foot wide breach in the cooling pond dam.
  • 12:05 pm – Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert sent an inaccurate media statement stating “Ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely; in fact, we’ve been pleased with their good performance during the historic flooding Hurricane Matthew brought to eastern North Carolina.”
  • Approximately 1:00 pm – WRAL sent video of the cooling pond dam breach to Duke Energy.
  • After approximately 3:00 pm – Erin Culbert of Duke Energy issued another inaccurate statement that said “A portion of the earthen cooling pond wall at the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro, N.C., experienced a break in the early afternoon today following historic flooding this week from Hurricane Matthew.” (Emphasis added).

Waterkeeper Alliance Clean & Safe Energy Campaign Manager Donna Lisenby said, “This week, Duke Energy appears to have reverted to similar behavior that resulted in their criminal guilty pleas last year. While failing to identify a gaping hole in the cooling pond dam, and erosion leading to ‘the discharge of an unknown amount of coal ash’ at the Lee facility, Duke made matters worse by repeatedly issuing statements falsely assuring the public that their ‘ash basin and cooling pond dams across the state continue to operate safely.’ The fact that it took an untrained news crew to make Duke Energy aware of the breach in their cooling pond dam upwards of 24 hours after it occurred is a staggering demonstration that the company simply cannot be trusted to competently monitor and disclose accurate information about the state of their cooling water dams and coal ash ponds. Federal authorities should review the company’s compliance with the terms and conditions of its federal probation.”

Waterkeeper Alliance and North Carolina Riverkeepers have conducted aerial patrols of the eastern North Carolina for the last 5 days, and will fly again today. Our photos are available on the organizations’ Flickr page.

** To arrange interviews with Donna Lisenby, Pete Harrison or Matthew Starr, contact: Tina Posterli, Waterkeeper Alliance, 516-526-9371, [email protected]


Waterkeeper Alliance continues to activate its Rapid Response protocol with 13 North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations as they work to document  the potentially devastating impacts of flooded coal ash ponds, factory swine, and poultry facilities on the state’s waterways in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.


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