Duke Restores Power to 1.2 Million, Now the Real Test Begins

Duke Energy Corp., the biggest utility in the Carolinas, has faced a three-front war as it battles back against the wet and dangerously wild effects of Hurricane Florence.

The company restored power to almost 80 percent of customers who went dark in the storm, but said late Monday it will take a week to get everyone back on. The Brunswick nuclear plant is now freshly staffed and supplied after being cut off by flooding over the weekend. But as of early Tuesday, the utility hadn’t updated the status of a landfill breach that spilled out as much as 2,000 cubic yards (1,529 cubic meters) of coal ash, potentially carrying arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium into the environment.

While Duke has said the spill poses no imminent threat, environmentalists are concerned that the potential of the spill remains unclear. The impact assessment should include “how much coal ash entered the rain water and washed off the site,” said Donna Lisenby, global advocacy manager at the Waterkeeper Alliance. “They’re not telling us the water impacts.”

A Duke Energy power plant that is one of a number of power facilities in the flood prone areas ahead of Hurricane Florence in Arden, North Carolina, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Hurricane Florence is slowing as it advances upon the U.S. Southeast, promising "disaster" for residents near the Carolina coast. Photographer: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the spill.

The target for getting almost all electricity restored is Sept. 26, the company’s statement said, though that won’t include those with damage that might prevent the return of service. About 216,280 customers were without power early Tuesday as the storm tracked northeast, heading across New York State and into New England.

“The first ones are the easiest ones,” Kit Konolige, a New York-based analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, said Monday about the power recovery. “You want to see over the next few days, does it continue to go down pretty quickly.”

The storm has already taken the lives of at least 31 people, according to the Associated Press, and flooding in the region is expected to last for at least two weeks following record rains.

The Cape Fear River that stretches west from the North Carolina coast deep into the middle of the state was still rising, was set to crest Wednesday 9.2 feet (2.8 meters) above major flood stages in Burgaw, North Carolina. The Neuse River in Kinston wasn’t set to crest until Saturday.

Many still in the dark are in coastal areas that experienced road closures and structural damage, according to the Duke statement. The outages weren’t as widespread as Duke initially warned. As the storm loomed, the utility said as many as 3 million homes and businesses could lose power.

“This is like when you go to a restaurant and they say it could be an hour and then they seat you in 20 minutes,” Konolige said. “They want to keep expectations reasonably low. If there’s still a lot of outages after a week, then it starts to look like a problem.”

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality will try Monday to inspect the coal-ash landfill, spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said in an email. Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that after this storm, the state must ensure that Duke Energy makes the landfill able to withstand floods and hurricanes.

“Duke Energy certainly should not be allowed to continue to dispose of millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits beside rivers in North Carolina, when it has not adequately designed or maintained a modern landfill,” he said in an email Monday.

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