USCG Restricts Traffic to Reduce Risk of Coal Ash Discharge

Highlights from the Coast Guard's response to Hurricane Florence (USCG / DVIDS)

By The Maritime Executive 09-24-2018 10:39:33

On Saturday, the Coast Guard Captain of the Port in Charleston, South Carolina declared a safety zone on the Waccamaw River at the town of Conway, where flood waters have overtopped a defunct coal ash disposal pit. 

Residual flooding from Hurricane Florence has led to widespread damage in the Carolinas, including another coal ash pit breach near Wilmington, N.C. At Conway, the Waccamaw's waters flooded a defunct, remediated coal ash pit at the former Grainger Generating Station site. Site operator Santee-Cooper believes that this pit poses no environmental threat, as it has already been cleaned out. However, the water also threatens to breach the dike containing an adjacent, full pit, which contains 200,000 tons of coal ash.

The Coast Guard COTP said in a statement that state and federal authorities are concerned that the wake of passing vessels could degrade the flood berms adjacent to the Grainger Generating Station ash ponds. To reduce this risk, the Coast Guard now requires vessels to ask for permission to enter a safety zone on a stretch of the Waccamaw River above and below the site.

Santee-Cooper said that it is testing the waters in and around the area to monitor for signs of contamination. A spokesperson for the firm emphasized that the EPA has not categorized coal ash as hazardous waste; however, the substance is known to contain toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Duke Energy, a large private utility based in North Carolina, pled guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act for a coal ash release in 2015. 

Continued flooding

The Waccamaw River was at about 21 feet at Conway on Monday morning, three feet above the previous record for flooding. It is expected to rise another foot before peaking on Wednesday. 

In Georgetown County, SC, 6,000-8,000 residents in flood zones have been asked to prepare for evacuation in advance of record flooding on the Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers. The South Carolina Department of Transportation and the South Carolina National Guard are building a barrier wall at the U.S. 17 bridge over the Waccamaw in order to prevent damage.

SCDOT reiterated its previous warnings to avoid driving into floodwaters, no matter how shallow they might appear. The CDC estimates that more than half of all flood-related drownings occur when cars are driven into floodwaters, with deaths caused by walking into or near floodwaters following in second place. A high proportion of USCG airborne rescues after Hurricane Florence were in response to stranded vehicles. 

In North Carolina, the Cape Fear River's height has still not peaked, and it is expected to remain at flood stage for the next day. Interstate 40 will likely be underwater for at least one more week. 

Hurricane Florence's winds abated before it made landfall, but it deposited a record 30 inches of rain over areas of North Carolina. The combined damage from flooding and wind damage is expected to reach about $40 billion, plus additional cost in the form of lost economic activity.