UPDATE: State tests show water OK after Sutton Lake breach


WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — A coal ash spill from two weeks ago has left many people in the Cape Fear on edge as we waited for test results to come back. Well the results are in.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says tests from Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant show all levels of metal except one are below state water quality standards after a breach at a cooling lake two weeks ago. The state test show only a slight elevation of dissolved copper from the samples taken in the days after the September 21 breach. DEQ says the copper levels were the same upstream and downstream and could be a result of the extreme flooding in the area after Hurricane Florence.

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“We are pleased that the state’s test results align well with the extensive water sampling Duke Energy continues to perform, demonstrating that Cape Fear River quality is not harmed by Sutton plant operations,” Duke Energy spokesman Bill Norton said in a statement.

Environmental groups say testing of the river shows something different. They say results show a high level of coal ash in the Cape Fear River, and three different locations have high levels of metals like arsenic. Cape Fear River Keeper Kemp Burdette says based on what they saw and the results from the lab, this will have significant impacts on the ecosystem.

Burdette, Duke Energy and state regulators all say people do not need to worry when it comes to drinking water and water for showering, because that water is drawn about 20 miles upstream from Sutton Lake. But Burdette says this can affect the fish in Sutton Lake and could impact recreational fishing and the fishing industry. He says he is furious with Duke Energy.

“They have done everything in their power to minimize what was a significant spill and try to spin this story as if there’s nothing to worry about and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Burdette said.

Burdette says it’s still to early to see what the impacts will be in the long, run but he is certain that no one should be exposed to heavy metals.

Duke Energy disputes the findings of the environmental groups.

“These results, combined with dozens of data points gathered by Duke Energy over many days, make it clear that three samples shared by environmental groups yesterday are extreme outliers that do not paint an accurate picture of river quality,” Norton said.

Burdette also said that about 20 percent of people in New Hanover County use public ground water wells, but they also are not affected by the spill.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the results of NCDEQ testing and a response from Duke Energy.