Duke shuts natgas plant due to Florence floods, coal ash leak feared

(Reuters) - Duke Energy Corp DUK.N said it shut down a North Carolina natural gas plant due to flooding as the deluge of water continued in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which has killed more than 40 people.

Duke also said it cannot rule out the possibility that coal ash from another plant is flowing into nearby waters.

Water breached the cooling lake dam at Duke’s 625-megawatt natural gas L.V. Sutton plant, causing the company to shut the plant. Water is now exiting the cooling lake through breaches, one large and several smaller, the company said in a statement on Friday.

However, the company later in the day issued a statement saying the situation remains stable at the plant. The company did not provide any further information on the status of the incident.

Hurricane Florence brought several feet of rain to parts of North Carolina over a period of days, and the historic level of storm flooding is not expected to subside until next week.

Duke reported two coal ash leaks from a retired plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, following storm Florence. One came from its shuttered Sutton Power Plant on Saturday and a second on Sunday, according to federal officials.

Officials had worried the water would overwhelm several pits where coal ash had been stored, potentially contaminating rivers.

“We have not been able to get our feet on the ground to get the water quality sampling” due to flooding in the area, Michael Regan, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said during North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s Hurricane Florence briefing on Friday.

“We plan to conduct flyovers and partner with the Department of Transportation to see if we can ascertain ... whether any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River,” Regan said.

Separately, company spokeswoman Paige Sheehan told Reuters they cannot rule out the possibility that coal ash might have entered the Cape Fear River.

Coal ash collects at the bottom of basins, making it difficult to determine when ash escapes from a site.

Coal ash can contaminate water and harm fish and wildlife. Ash pits and other embankments have ruptured under heavy rain in the past, and Duke Energy had agreed to secure the sites in North Carolina’s lowland areas - but that work is ongoing.

The company’s shares closed down almost 1 percent at $79.82 on Friday.

Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Swati Verma in Bengaluru and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Chris Reese and Diane Craft