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National

    Prosecutors are set to dismiss convictions against 18 more people that resulted from investigations by a corrupt Chicago police sergeant and his crew of tactical officers. The exonerations will take place Monday and will bring to 42 the total number of overturned convictions linked to then-Sgt. Ronald Watts since 2016, the Chicago Tribune reported . The latest reversals all involve drug cases brought between 2003 and 2008, court records show. The defendants received sentences ranging from probation to four years in prison, so any that were locked up were released long ago. Robert Foley, a spokesman for Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, confirmed that the cases would be thrown out but declined to comment further until then. The new cases set for dismissal include one in which the defendant alleged that Watts had framed him for narcotics possession because his brother had failed to pay $5,000 in protection money. Many such allegations that Watts and his crew extorted drug dealers and residents swirled around them for years, despite complaints to the police department and statements made during court hearings. Watts' and another officer were arrested in 2012 when they shook down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI informant. Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to federal prison. Watts, who received a 22-month term, was released in 2015 and later moved to Las Vegas, records show. Joshua Tepfer, who represented 12 of the men whose cases will be dismissed Monday, said the fact that Watts was allowed to operate for so long even though his corruption was an 'open secret' among police leadership illustrates a 'total failure of the system.' 'My clients told everyone about it, and no one believed them,' said Tepfer, an attorney for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. 'They told police investigators, they told judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Their complaints were dismissed and ignored.' Men whose convictions were dismissed have filed at least 23 wrongful conviction federal lawsuits against Watts and the city. Those cases are pending, and the new dismissals will likely lead to more lawsuits. Chicago's troubled police force has been involved in series of scandals in recent decades and misconduct settlements, verdicts and legal fees that have cost the city more than $700 million in the last 15 or so years. ___ Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com
  • An argument over a plate led to a physical altercation between customers and a server, which resulted in a baby being punched in the head, police said. >> Read more trending news  The incident took place Tuesday at the El Matador restaurant in Denton, KDFW reported. Two women sharing a table asked for an extra plate and became upset at how long their request was taking, witnesses told police. One woman at the table knocked a plate of food off the table, then confronted the server, who was taking an order at another table. The woman hit the server, who fell onto a 9-month-old baby in a highchair, KDFW reported. The collision caused the baby to hit his head on the table, police said. As the server attempted to get up, the woman tried to strike her again but missed and punched the baby in the back of the head. The baby's mother confronted the woman, who punched the mother in the face, police said. The mother chased the women out of the restaurant. The suspects were gone by the time police arrived, KDFW reported. Police are attempting to identify the suspects.There were no serious injuries, The Dallas Morning News reported.
  • Authorities in New York City are facing a security and logistical challenge of epic proportions with the coming arrival of President Donald Trump and other world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly. Though there's been no credible threats against the event, the security concerns are so broad that the New York Police Department has considered how it would stop assassins armed with poison or killer drones. The NYPD's main line of defense will be thousands of extra police officers flooding the streets as part of a carefully coordinated effort with the Secret Service and other federal and local law enforcement agencies to protect both the United Nations and Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, said Police Commissioner James O'Neill. 'Since the end of last year's General Assembly, we've been planning how to best protect the various sites and all the people inside them, while also minimizing the impact on New Yorkers,' O'Neill said at recent news conference at a command center at police headquarters. The 73rd Session of the General Assembly began on Sept. 18, but the higher-level meetings start Monday. The security arsenal features police boats patrolling the East River near the U.N., aviation units overhead and teams of officers trained to respond to chemical, biological and other potential terror threats. About 50 city Department of Sanitation dump trucks filled with sand and 230 concrete barriers will be positioned at intersections and other strategic locations to guard against car or truck attacks like the one last year that killed eight people on a bike path in Lower Manhattan. Police said other preparations have included consulting with British authorities about the poisoning of a former Russian spy there earlier this year by way of a weapons-grade nerve agent. British officials say the attack was carried out by Russian operatives. Police have also studied an attack on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro last month using drones rigged with explosives. Maduro said this past week that he may have to suspend a planned trip to the United Nations because of concerns his opponents would try to kill him if he travels abroad. But the NYPD is expecting more than 200 other world leaders to show up, all needing to move around the city in motorcades with police escorts. Those foreign dignitaries flying state aircraft into New York's Kennedy Airport will be greeted with strict enforcement of security rules requiring the planes to depart within two hours of touching down. The crackdown comes after the indictment of an airport supervisor on charges he took bribes to let Qatar and other countries park their planes overnight during the gathering. Trump is expected to arrive for a rare hometown visit and a possible stay at Trump Tower, his longtime home he has rarely visited since becoming president. Outside the skyscraper, police plan to set up a series of barriers and security checkpoints. Police said they expect more than 60 demonstrations outside the United Nations, foreign consulates and Trump Tower at various times during the week. The bad news for motorists: Officials say all the activity will cause worse gridlock than the traffic jams during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center and the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square. Authorities said they hadn't calculated the cost of the security operation. But they said there's been a $20 to $30 million bill for past General Assemblies, and that the federal government covers most of it. ___ Associated Press writer Michael Sisak contributed to this report.
  • Democrats looking to regain a foothold in state capitols largely led by Republicans had anticipated flipping control of up to a dozen legislative chambers during the last presidential election. It didn't work out that way. As Republicans remain in overwhelming control of state legislatures, Democrats are doubling their spending for this year's state House and Senate elections. It's a renewed and increasingly urgent attempt to put a dent in the Republican ranks before it's too late to influence the next round of redistricting, which is set to occur after the 2020 Census. 'To us, the next decade is on the ballot in November,' said Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is being aided by former President Barack Obama and led by his former attorney general, Eric Holder. Voters will be deciding more than 6,000 state legislative races in a November midterm election held in the pervasive shadow of President Donald Trump and high-profile contests for the U.S. Senate and House, as well as 36 governorships. Of particular importance are more than 800 races spread across about two dozen states where voters will be electing state lawmakers to four-year terms in which the winners could play a role in approving new congressional or state legislative districts. State legislatures, which form the grassroots of the political parties, appear to have a greater percentage of Democrats on this year's general election ballots than at any point since at least 1992, according to research by the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Saint Louis University political scientist Steve Rogers, who focuses on state legislative elections. 'I would attribute it to Trump,' Rogers said. 'When the president is less popular, members of the opposition party are much more likely to run.' Republicans remain hopeful they can rebuff a potential blue wave. In many states, candidates will be running in districts drawn by Republicans after the 2010 Census with boundaries shown by statistical analyses to benefit Republicans. ___ Partisan control is at stake in more than a dozen closely divided state legislative chambers. All told, national Democratic and Republican groups are targeting chambers in half the states. That includes some where they want to cut into the opposing party's dominance to deny veto-proof supermajorities or position themselves for a takeover attempt in 2020, the final election before redistricting. In many states, new districts will be drawn by state lawmakers and approved or vetoed by governors. In other places, governors or legislative leaders will appoint special panels to do the task. If one party controls the redistricting process, it can draw maps that give it an advantage for the decade to come. Republicans generally won the last redistricting battle. During the 2010 elections, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent about $30 million to help flip control of 21 state legislative chambers just in time for redistricting. Under those subsequent maps, Republicans posted a net gain of more than 950 state legislative seats during Obama's presidency. The GOP now controls two-thirds of the 99 legislative chambers across the country. It has full control of both chambers and the governor's office in three times as many states as Democrats. Since Trump's election, Democrats have regained a net of 36 state legislative seats through general elections in Virginia and New Jersey and special elections elsewhere. That's a reversal of less than 4 percent of the Republicans' gains, a modest amount that nonetheless has been touted by Democrats eager to highlight momentum. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has doubled its spending from 2015-16 to a planned $35 million this election cycle. Its goal is to flip between eight and 10 Republican-run chambers. It notes that a gain of just 17 total seats could reverse eight state Senate chambers — in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. ___ One of the Democrats' top targets is in the Denver suburbs, where state Rep. Faith Winter is challenging Republican Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik in a district that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points over Trump two years ago. Winter said she has no particular beef with Martinez Humenik; the two even have co-sponsored bills. But Winter said legislation related to affordable housing and climate change would stand a better chance if the Democratic-led House weren't paired with a Republican-run Senate. 'I believe that Colorado would be better off — and our voters would be better off — with Democratic leadership in the Senate,' said Winter, one of 39 candidates endorsed by Obama in six states that are important to the Democrats' redistricting strategy. Martinez Humenik has emphasized her willingness to work across the political aisle as she tries to hold on to a seat that swung control of the chamber to Republicans during the 2014 election. Her campaign website declares: 'Focused on Results, not Political Parties.' 'I'm hopeful that what is going on in Washington, D.C., does not affect us here at the state level,' she said. Both parties also have targeted the Wisconsin Senate, where Democrats picked up two seats in special elections this year to narrow the Republican advantage to 18-15. One of November's key races pits Democrat Kriss Marion, who gained attention by successfully suing for the right to sell homemade cookies without state regulation, against Republican Sen. Howard Marklein. The rural southwestern Wisconsin district swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. Marklein notes that he fared better as an Assembly candidate than the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 and better in 2014 than Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is heading the ballot again this year. 'My guess is my hard work is going to result in me outperforming the top of the ticket again,' Marklein said. But Marion got more votes than Marklein in the August primaries, when both were unopposed. 'The momentum is certainly with us and with turnover,' said Marion, adding: 'We have to win this seat if we're going to flip the Senate.' ___ Wisconsin is one of five states — along with Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — targeted by the Republican State Leadership Committee as essential to protect in its redistricting strategy because they have sent 18 more Republicans to Congress than Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have one-quarter more registered voters than Republicans statewide, yet Republicans won 13 of the state's 18 congressional seats in three straight elections before the state Supreme Court ordered new political maps for this year's elections, citing unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering by GOP lawmakers. The Republican State Leadership Committee plans to spend as much as $50 million on state legislative and down-ballot statewide races during the 2017-18 election cycle. That's up from about $38 million each of the past two election cycles. 'The fact that Republicans have had so much success doesn't have to do with our lines, it has to do with running better candidates who go out and govern in a way that's having a positive impact in their states,' said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. Though generally on the defensive, Republicans also have hopes of flipping some legislative chambers. Among their targets is the Connecticut Senate, where a Democratic lieutenant governor currently has tie-breaking power over an 18-18 partisan split. The outcome could come down to who is more unpopular — Trump or outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, who has presided over a strained budget and sluggish state economy. Republican state Rep. Mark Tweedie has been making the case for change as he challenges Democratic Sen. Steve Cassano in a potentially pivotal race for control of the chamber. 'The Republicans need to take the majority in the House, the Senate and the governor in order to turn this state around,' Tweedie said. But Cassano thinks Trump, whom he describes as 'an embarrassment,' could have a greater influence on the election without Cassano even having to make the president a campaign issue. 'If I'm going door-to-door or I'm going to a meeting ... people mention Trump,' Cassano said. 'I have a simple response: 'Make sure you vote.'' ___ Follow David A. Lieb at: http://twitter.com/DavidALieb
  • Allman Brothers Band founding member Dickey Betts has had successful surgery after slipping and hitting his head while playing with his dog in Florida. The Dickey Betts website says the 'Ramblin' Man' and 'Blue Sky' singer-songwriter and guitarist underwent surgery Friday to relieve swelling on his brain. A statement posted Saturday on the website says Betts and his family said the 'outpouring of support from all over the world has been overwhelming and amazing. We are so appreciative.' Last month Betts suffered a mild stroke and had to cancel upcoming tour dates with his Dickey Betts Band, which includes his son, Duane Betts. A few weeks ago longtime friend David Spero posted that Betts was responding well to treatment for the stroke and was 'raring to go.
  • The drama of parents being separated from their children at the border dominated the headlines this summer. But thousands of immigrant families are experiencing a similar frustration with new hurdles to take custody of sons, daughters and relatives who crossed the border on their own. The Trump administration has imposed more stringent rules and vetting for family members to get these children back as part of an across-the-board hardening of immigration policy. As a result, family members are struggling to comply with the new requirement, keeping children in detention longer and helping the number of migrant kids in government custody soar to the highest levels ever. Federal officials insist the policies are about ensuring the safety of children.
  • When the floodwaters from Florence receded, half the Starlite Motel was gone. A ragged lip of concrete edged parking spaces with no corresponding rooms, just a void of standing water and debris. The surge swept away personal belongings of the owner's family — even his father's wheelchair. And it wiped out the investment that three brothers from India had spent years working toward. 'We put all our life savings in there,' co-owner Kishor Depani said of himself and his brothers. 'We moved to America in 2007. We've been working until last year, when we bought this motel. We used to work at a gas station, small jobs — McDonald's and stuff like that — just to save up money so we can start this business.' Now, he's not sure what will happen. He said the property in Spring Lake, North Carolina, didn't have flood insurance . 'We have regular insurance, but I know for a fact there is no way they are going to cover this,' he said. 'Hopefully the state government or FEMA can help us.' Depani, 50, who's a U.S. citizen, said he and his brothers moved to this country so their children would have better educational opportunities. His only child, a son, attends the University of North Carolina. His brothers each have two adult children, one of whom is pursuing a second master's degree and another studying to become a doctor. The brothers moved to the Fayetteville area because their sister owned a gas station there, which she later sold. Photos from before the storm show the single-story brick motel stretched out parallel to state Highway 87, its sign bearing the words 'Starlite' in old-fashioned red cursive above 'motel' in all caps. Nearby is a gas station, a gun store and a neighborhood of modest one-story homes. The motel built six decades ago sits with its back to the Little River, but the brothers felt it was a safe investment because Hurricane Matthew's floodwaters in 2016 — some of the worst the area had ever seen — put only a few inches of water on the property. As Florence approached, Depani sent his family to stay with relatives in nearby Fayetteville while he remained in their apartment on the property to man the business. He was there when the storm hit early Sept. 14. Flooding predictions became direr, and an evacuation was ordered. Depani went door-to-door telling the 40 or so people in the motel's 20 rooms to find shelter elsewhere. A handful had been renting there for months. He thinks some went to stay with friends, others to shelters, but he's not positive: 'I didn't have time; I couldn't ask' Renters fled in such a hurry that they left belongings still hanging in one closet, a suitcase in another and golf clubs on one floor. 'I'm so happy they were able to evacuate, because if they didn't, it would have been really, really bad,' he said. Then he went to Fayetteville to wait out the flooding. As the water came in, he held out hope. He returned Sunday to retrieve some belongings and found only a couple of feet of water. A day or so later, while watching television, his worst fears were realized. 'We saw on the news, from the chopper, that the water was touching the roof,' he said. 'My mind went blank — could not think, could not function.' On Wednesday, the waters had receded and Depani went back to survey the scene. He and his wife walked past torn-out bricks, window frames and shattered glass. They went back into their apartment — now uninhabitable — to look for what they could salvage. Lost were a new refrigerator and dishwasher, television, two laptops, phones and his father's wheelchair. Older brother Dinesh Depani, 55, was dumbfounded: 'I saw it and I was shocked.' The three brothers had hoped the motel would be an early piece of a growing collection of businesses they could expand into other cities. They made a down payment of about $100,000 and still owe as much as $500,000 on the mortgage, Kishor Depani said — unable to say the exact amount during an interview because he believes mortgage documents were swept away. 'It was what we saw as a good starting point for other future businesses,' Kishor Depani said. 'The motel business is something that seemed like a small start to something that we wanted to build up to our future plans to move to bigger things.' He said business was great at the motel, where he charged $46 to $56 per night. His wife helped him check in people, keep the books and launder the linens. He said he had exceeded the previous owner's best months for sales and had been planning to remodel and upgrade the property. What is left standing now, he believes, will have to be demolished. He was optimistic that he and his brothers would bounce back despite the uncertainty of government assistance. But that doesn't mean it won't be painful. 'It's hurtful because this was the foundation,' he said. 'But I'm hoping God will help us create a bigger, better and a stronger foundation.' ___ Drew reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. ___ Follow Goldman at www.twitter.com/DavidGoldmanAP and Drew at www.twitter.com/JonathanLDrew ___ For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes
  • Journalist Alice Allison Dunnigan triumphed over sexism and racism to become the first black woman accredited to cover the White House. In recognition of her achievements, the Newseum unveiled a statue in her honor on Friday. The bronze life-size statue will remain in the Newseum, just steps away from the National Mall and the White House, until December. The statue, based on a photo of Dunnigan standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, depicts her in hat and pearls, a folded newspaper in her hands. Members of Dunnigan's family, friends, colleagues and admirers gasped with joy as the statue was revealed, with some crying. The statue by Amanda Matthews will be moved to the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Dunnigan's hometown of Russellville, Kentucky, in December. 'Monuments inform us of our past, but they also lead us toward our future,' Matthews said just before the statue was unveiled. 'Alice Dunnigan envisioned a future of equality and she dedicated her life to that vision as a teacher, a journalist, an editor and a champion for civil rights and women. She is why we're all here today, to continue to support that vision.' Dunnigan was trained as a teacher but wanted to be a journalist. After working at The Chicago Defender, she became the Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press, where she wrote about government and politics for 112 African-American newspapers. She then made history when she received White House press credentials in 1947 and became part of the White House traveling press corps covering President Harry Truman's re-election campaign in 1948. Dunnigan would go on to cover Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy before taking a job in the Kennedy and then the Johnson administration. She died in 1983 in Washington, D.C., at age 77. Dunnigan faced both racism and sexism during her career in Washington. For example, she was kept from covering an Eisenhower speech in 1953 because it was in a whites-only theater. Later, Dunnigan was made to sit with servants to cover the funeral of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. In addition to the indignity of racism, Dunnigan was often paid less than her male colleagues in the black press and forced to justify herself in situations where male reporters were welcomed. 'Race and sex were twin strikes against me. I'm not sure which was the hardest to break down,' Dunnigan has been quoted as saying. But she didn't let any of that stop her, friends and relatives did. She was the first black member of the Women's National Press Club, and the first black woman to belong to the House of Representatives and Senate press galleries and the State Department press corps. 'If she was here, she would say we've made great inroads in the '40s and then came the '60s and we're now where we are,' said her granddaughter Soraya Dunnigan Brandon, 58, of Durham, North Carolina. 'But the same issues are still there, so I think she would say that we have to keep working.' ___ Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Contact him at jholland@ap.org, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jessejholland. You can read his stories at AP at http://bit.ly/storiesbyjessejholland.
  • Law enforcement officials said Friday they might never know the motive for a female shooter's violent rampage that killed three people and wounded three at a sprawling Maryland warehouse before she turned the gun on herself. It's little consolation for grieving relatives and others trying to find answers. The suspect, 26-year-old Snochia Moseley of Baltimore County, had been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness in 2016 but had legally purchased the handgun she carried in the deadly Thursday morning attack, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told reporters a day after the violence. But he said what ultimately triggered the workplace shooting is still a mystery and may remain so. 'Frankly, when someone does something like this, such violence against other human beings, we're never going to make sense of it or understand it fully,' the sheriff said at a Friday press conference. Law enforcement officials said the particulars of Moseley's mental illness history would not have flagged her from purchasing a gun in Maryland, where buyers cannot pass a background check if they were either involuntarily committed for any period of time or voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility for at least 30 consecutive days. A family friend of one of the victims killed in the shooting at the drugstore distribution center in Aberdeen, Maryland, said the immigrant family from Nepal was utterly wracked with despair and confounded as to how a person with a history of mental illness had a gun in the first place. 'They cannot understand how this could happen. In Nepal, there are very few homicides. They are asking: 'How did this person access a gun?' said Harry Bhandari, a community leader and candidate for state delegate who has known 41-year-old Brindra Giri's family for about 10 years. Giri, a mother of two, had only recently moved to the U.S. from her homeland of Nepal to join her husband, an employee of a local liquor store. Authorities on Friday identified her as one of the three people killed when Moseley, a temp employee, opened fired at the Rite Aid facility. The county sheriff told reporters that Moseley had become increasingly agitated in recent weeks, and relatives had been concerned for her well-being. She used a 9 mm Glock that she legally purchased in March to fire a total of 13 rounds Thursday morning and died after shooting herself in the head. Gahler identified the three people Moseley fatally shot as Giri; Hayleen Reyes, a 41-year-old woman from Baltimore; and Sunday Aguda, a 45-year-old man from Baltimore County. He identified the wounded survivors as Hassan Mitchell, a 19-year-old man from Harford County; Wilfredo Villegas, a 45-year-old man from Montgomery County; and Acharya Purna, a 45-year-old man from New York. Moseley had been hired for the holiday season and had been working there for less than two weeks, according to Gahler. She entered the building at 6:30 a.m. As people lined up to come in the building, Gahler said she cut in line and words were exchanged, but it was a 'little incident.' She left around 7:21 a.m. Moseley, who had worked security jobs in the past, drove to her White Marsh home and got a handgun, pepper spray and handcuffs. She arrived back at the parking lot around 8:35 a.m. and entered the front door around 8:52 a.m. She pulled a hooded shirt over her head and began shooting, striking and killing Aguda outside the building, according to Gahler. Inside, where there were about 65 people, she fatally shot Giri and Reyes and also shot Mitchell, Villegas and Purna, who survived. She shot herself twice before police arrived, he said — once with a grazing wound and then with the fatal shot. She was already down when officers arrived and an officer moved her from the scene, not knowing that she was the shooter. When asked how Moseley could legally buy a gun after being diagnosed with a mental illness, officials said it had not been determined that she had a 'propensity for violence to self or others.' The shooting sent survivors screaming and running in all directions. Bhandari said Giri was trampled in the chaos before getting shot. When the shooter shot herself, others helped the wounded before authorities arrived. The attack came nearly three months after a man with a shotgun attacked a newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five staff members. Authorities accused Jarrod W. Ramos of attacking The Capital Gazette because of a longstanding grudge against the paper. It came less than a year after a fatal workplace shooting less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the warehouse, in which five were shot, three fatally. The Maryland attack also came on the heels of workplace shootings this week in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said that, unfortunately, shootings like this are 'becoming a too-often occurrence' in the nation. ___ Associated Press writers Sarah Rankin Richmond, Virginia, and Sarah Brumfield in Washington contributed to this report. .
  • Gray muck is flowing into the Cape Fear River from the site of a dam breach at a Wilmington power plant where an old coal ash dump had been covered over by Florence's floodwaters. Forecasters predicted the water will continue to rise Saturday at the L.V. Sutton Power Station. Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the utility doesn't believe the breach poses a significant threat of increased flooding to nearby communities. No environmental regulators were at the scene to help catalog the potential harm to the river, with officials citing unsafe conditions. Floodwaters breached several points early Friday in the earthen dam at Sutton Lake, the plant's 1,100-acre (445-hectare) reservoir. Lake water then flooded one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore. Sheehan said the company can't rule out that ash might be escaping the flooded dump and flowing through the lake into the river. The ash left over when coal is burned to generate electricity contains mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals. Duke said Friday the inundated basin at the plant contains about 400,000 cubic yards (305,820 cubic meters) of ash. The area received more than 30 inches (75 centimeters) of rain from former Hurricane Florence, with the Cape Fear River still rising Friday and expected to crest Sunday and remain at flood stage through early next week. Gray material the company characterized as 'coal combustion byproducts' could be seen floating in the lake and river. Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group with a boat in the river, provided The Associated Press with images Friday showing wide gray slicks in the water. A team member plucked a turtle from the muck and rinsed it off. 'Any big spill like this raises concerns about the impacts on the estuary ecosystem in the lower Cape Fear River,' said Pete Harrison, a staff attorney with Earthjustice on the boat. 'This is Duke's third coal ash spill in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, and it looks like it's the biggest yet.' North Carolina's top environmental regulator said the possible environmental harm isn't yet known. No state inspectors had arrived by late Friday, though officials said they would be there as soon as conditions are considered safe for personnel to navigate the river and be onsite. 'What we don't know at this point is if any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River,' said Mike Regan, secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality, at a news conference in Raleigh. 'We plan to conduct flyovers.' Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Trey Glenn said his staff was monitoring the situation at Sutton from the state Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of the Sutton plant. He said dozens of EPA staff were scattered throughout the region impacted by Florence, checking on toxic waste sites and oil storage facilities. 'EPA serves in a support role to the impacted states and has offered assistance to North Carolina to help them respond to the reported Sutton coal ash incident,' Glenn said. 'As of this evening, North Carolina has not requested additional support.' With no regulators at the Sutton plant, it was left to Duke employees to collect water samples that would be tested in the company's in-house lab. Environmental groups also collected samples from the river that would be sent to a private lab. Security personnel for Duke blocked access Friday to Sutton Lake Road, leading to a public dock on the reservoir, a popular boating and fishing site. Duke denied a request for an Associated Press reporter to cross the barricade, saying the lake situation 'continues to change' and is 'not safe.' Sutton Lake is the former cooling pond for a coal-fired plant Duke retired in 2013 and replaced with a new generating station running off natural gas. Duke said that power plant was shut down overnight and all employees safely evacuated. The breach at the Wilmington site is separate from last weekend's reported rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill, which spilled enough material to fill 180 dump trucks. Duke's ash waste management has faced intense scrutiny since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated miles (kilometers) of the Dan River in gray sludge. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029. At the separate Duke plant near Goldsboro, three old coal-ash dumps capped with soil and trees were underwater Thursday after the Neuse River flooded. Staff from the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance visited the flooded dumps at the H.F. Lee Power Plant by boat Wednesday, took photographs and collected samples of gray sludge washing into the floodwaters. State environmental regulators visited the site Thursday, but said they were unable to make a full assessment because of high water levels. The Duke spokeswoman Sheehan said any coal ash release at the Goldsboro site appeared 'minimal.' Meanwhile, South Carolina's state-owned utility said it expected floodwaters to enter a coal ash pond at one of its closed power plants. Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the overtopping of an ash basin at the Granger plant near Conway should not be environmentally significant. Gore said nearly all the ash has been removed from the basin and water pumped in to prevent the dike from breaking. The company had placed a 2 ½-foot (72-centimeter) high inflatable berm around the top of a second pond that has more coal ash in it. She estimates 200,000 tons (181 million kilograms) of ash are in a corner of the pond furthest from the rising Waccamaw River. ___ Associated Press reporter Jeffrey Collins contributed from Columbia, S.C. ___ Biesecker reported from Washington. Follow him at http://twitter.com/mbieseck