For a moment, with the help of an October breeze, rays of sunlight dance across the endless wall of spruces and pines that guards the Neuse River from the wildlife stirring beyond the riverbank—revealing, in all of its burnt orange, maroon, and yellow glory, the dawn of an eastern North Carolina fall. A blue jay, having taken notice of the motorboat making its way toward the H.F. Lee Power Plant, decides to give the man behind the wheel a run for his money. Downstream, a fish jumps out of the water.
A few hundred yards from this idyllic scene, however, poison lurks—arsenic and cancer-causing heavy metals that have, yet again, been documented by environmentalists who, just days ago, took water samples that sounded alarm bells. And when the vessel slows near the bank that conceals 170 acres of inactive Duke Energy coal ash ponds and the active pond not too far down the river, the toxins reveal themselves.
Autumn seems to disappear. The trees resemble a winter landscape, one you might expect to see the morning after a heavy snow. The colors that left you breathless upstream are blanketed in a thick off-white powder—one so toxic that two men who have made protecting the Neuse their respective life's work warn you against touching.
It's been more than two years since a catastrophic coal ash spill into the Dan River led to three Duke Energy subsidiaries pleading guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. The company was fined $68 million, ordered to pay another $24 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and told to give $10 million to a wetlands mitigation bank to offset the long-term environmental impact of the coal ash basins.
But much of Duke's 108 million tons of ash, currently housed in pits ordered closed and excavated, remained as of a few weeks ago, as the court-ordered cleanup moves at a crawl. Then, the unthinkable happened. Hurricane Matthew flooded the H.F. Lee pits in Goldsboro, polluting the Neuse and, as a result of an unprecedented rise in the river, caking with poison trees that have stood longer than any person currently inhabiting the earth.
"I mean, look up. You're talking a good eight feet," says Pete Harrison, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a watchdog group that uncovered toxic seepage from the H.F. Lee ponds in 2014. "[Duke] said it's not coal ash, it's cenospheres. That's like saying, 'That's not a dog, it's a Labrador.'"
While the group contends the chalky substance caking the trees is, in fact, coal ash, cenospheres—a byproduct of coal combustion—are bad enough; if inhaled, they can cause respiratory damage.
Photographic and video documentation of the spill site provided by the alliance tells a story beyond the one in which a fall landscape was converted into a Tim Burton-esque winter wonderland. But proof of a one-inch-thick layer of coal ash choking the water's surface was dismissed by Duke officials, who accused the alliance of using scare tactics to inflame the public.
"The state team that inspected the facility determined that the amount of material that was displaced would not even fill the bed of an average pickup truck," according to a statement released by Duke.
Harrison doesn't buy the company's denial. "You're talking about a million tons of coal ash" in the inactive ponds submerged by the floodwaters, he notes. And what the alliance found on the river's surface doesn't include the ash in the trees or toxins that likely have sunk from view.
"It's heavy metals. They are carcinogens," says Upper Neuse riverkeeper Matthew Starr. "The level of arsenic in the groundwater monitoring well on this site is the highest of any of their coal ash sites around the state. It's sixty times the allowable limit of arsenic in that groundwater. Coal ash is heavily toxic. That's why they are being required to remove the coal ash at eight of their facilities. That's why they pled guilty during a federal investigation."
He lays the blame for this environmental disaster squarely on Duke. "The pits are just not in the right place, and this ash is in unlined pits on the bank of rivers," he says. "The H.F. Lee pits are in the floodway, in the flood zone. We saw it flood in '99, so it's just not a good place to store your coal ash. And the fix is in on this. They are going to have to fully excavate this coal ash and get it away from surface water in a lined facility. I don't want to undermine the sheer magnitude of the amount of coal ash that's in our state, but they can't do it fast enough. The sooner the better."