ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Flooding from Hurricane Florence also poses environmental risks. Over the weekend, in Wilmington, N.C., floodwaters caused coal ash to spill from a landfill into a neighboring lake. Coal ash is the waste byproduct leftover from burning coal, and it's known to contain heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead. Crews are on site today trying to repair the damage and contain the spill.
We're joined now by Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. He leads the group's work on coal ash in the region. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
FRANK HOLLEMAN: Thank you for having me, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How toxic is coal ash? How much needs to get into a waterway to pose a risk to humans?
HOLLEMAN: Well, coal ash is dangerous being stored on banks of rivers because, first of all, it's just industrial sludge, and getting tons of industrial sludge into a river or waterway - or any amount for that matter - poses threats to the ecological health of the river. But coal ash also contains substances like arsenic, mercury and lead. We just don't want these substances getting in our waterway when they pose risks to our waters and to the people who use them.
SHAPIRO: The company that operates this facility, Duke Energy, describes the lake next to the coal ash pit, called Sutton Lake, as a small cooling pond that the plant built for that purpose - as a cooling pond. Does that make this less of a threat?
HOLLEMAN: No, that's sort of a misleading statement by Duke Energy trying to minimize the situation here. Sutton Lake is a public water body. It's a large fishing lake for recreation, but they also fish in that lake for dinner. It is protected by all the laws that protect any other water body, and it's part of the Cape Fear River system. So we need to be as concerned about that lake or perhaps more so because people make such intensive use of it.
SHAPIRO: Florence is a storm that has broken records for rainfall in some areas. Is it to be expected that whatever precautions and safety measures a company like Duke Energy might take, there will occasionally be a record-breaking storm that will cause damage that nobody anticipated?
HOLLEMAN: Well, that's the very reason why Duke Energy needs to get its coal ash off the banks of these rivers. When a hurricane comes, if you're leaving your ash in a big, unlined pit sitting next to a river, all you can really do is hope and pray that nothing bad happens.
SHAPIRO: A few years ago, North Carolina ordered this power plant to move its coal ash from an old, unsafe pit to a newer, more advanced one with a lining that would keep heavy metals from entering groundwater. While they're still in the process of doing that, the spill this weekend happened in the new pit. What does that tell you about the current system of storing waste from coal-powered plants?
HOLLEMAN: Well, that raises the concern even higher because if Duke Energy has not been able to properly design, maintain or build a modern landfill to avoid a failure like this, we have to be even more concerned about the risk we face from their old, primitive, aging, unlined earthen pit sitting next to our rivers.
SHAPIRO: We asked Duke Energy for a response, and they told us they have a high level of confidence that the environment remains well-protected. What do you think of that?
HOLLEMAN: Well, that's exactly what they told us before their Dan River facility collapsed into the Dan River in 2014. So what we would like to see is - to Duke Energy to stop engaging in spin and start cleaning up these coal ash sites along the rivers of North Carolina.
SHAPIRO: Frank Holleman is a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Thank you for joining us today.
HOLLEMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.