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As electric companies continued to restore power across the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence swept through the state, heavy rains were behind a collapse at a Duke Energy Corp. coal ash disposal site at the L.V. Sutton Power Station near Wilmington, NC.

With part of the landfill washed away, coal ash escaped into Sutton Lake along the Cape Fear River.

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Duke issued a statement saying it does not believe the incident poses a risk to public health or the environment.

Deep water covered the northern route to the Sutton plant as sheriff’s deputies evacuated nearby homes, some of which had begun to flood. Industrial sites and trailer parks dot the area, and the smell of burned popcorn cut through the rain.

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State and company officials said it could take a while to determine to what extent the coal ash spill poses a danger to people in the area. Coal ash is the toxic residue left after power plants burn coal, and it’s a brew of lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals.

Floodwaters and other hazards are preventing North Carolina inspectors from getting to the area.

Duke’s inspectors found a collapsed slope and erosion at a lined landfill at the former coal-fired Sutton plant, which is now a natural gas power station. Roughly 2,000 cubic yards — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool — were released.

The utility said it’s unclear how much of the stormwater may have reached Sutton Lake, which it referred to as a cooling pond built to support plant operations. The 1,100-acre lake is known to the public as a popular fishing destination. It is next to the banks of the Cape Fear River, which is flooding.

Duke, in its statement, sought to reassure residents. It leaned on a 2014 coal ash disposal rule from the Obama-era EPA that determined coal ash doesn’t have to be treated like a hazardous waste. The rule emerged after years of utility industry lobbying for weaker regulation.

Duke’s ash ponds at Sutton have had a storied history. The state fined the utility a record $25 million in 2015 for years of groundwater contamination.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality officials said they have been monitoring coal ash impoundments across the state. “Once the damage is assessed, DEQ will determine the best path forward and hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment,” said DEQ spokeswoman Megan Thorpe.

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