Dan River disaster
by Anna Oakes
Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby and staff from Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices were among the groups to travel to the site this week to document the spill. The Waterkeeper Alliance has called the coal ash spill the third largest in U.S. history.
"Basically, this is North Carolina's version of the BP oil spill," said Lisenby, who is also the coal campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. "We have a pipe in an ash pond that Duke can't cap right now. The polluter responsible is unable to stop it, and that's a huge concern."
The release of coal ash and basin water into the Dan River had slowed, but had not stopped as of Thursday, according to Duke Energy. The company reported Monday that a 48-inch stormwater pipe underneath a 27-acre coal ash basin had broken, releasing an estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million to 27 million gallons of basin water into the river. The company has not updated that estimate since Monday.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it expected to have the results of water quality tests on Thursday and Friday but had not published the results as of presstime. DENR is testing for sulfates, nutrients, suspended solids and 28 heavy metals, including arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead and boron.
The state department said Tuesday that initial tests showed no deviation from normal ranges for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity, but that "these initial results do not mean the water is safe."
The Waterkeeper Alliance said Thursday that results of its own tests revealed that water downstream of the spill is contaminated with "extremely high" levels of arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals.
The spill site is located about 20 miles upstream of the Danville, Va., public water supply intake. Danville Utilities said late Tuesday that initial tests of treated water samples collected by Duke Energy confirmed that water treated by the facility was safe to drink. The utility department said it was collecting its own samples and would publicize test results when they are available.
Duke did not publish results of its tests, but said in a release Wednesday that levels of metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium were less than two parts per billion at the Danville and South Boston, Va., intakes as of Tuesday evening.
"So, that's good news. There's been no impact on the water quality for the drinking water," said Dave Scanzoni, a Duke Energy spokesman.
Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, said the safety of the drinking water would depend on the treatment capacity of the Danville water facility.
"My concern would be there are several of those toxic metals that fully dissolve in the water and may make it through the filter system," Adams said.
Adams said she expected to receive water quality test results from Appalachian Voices' samples on Friday and that the organization would publicize its results.
Duke Energy said Wednesday it had discovered the section of pipe that broke was constructed from corrugated metal.
"Initially, we thought the entire line was reinforced concrete, but it turns out two-thirds of it was corrugated metal," said Scanzoni.
Scanzoni said the company has temporarily rerouted stormwater runoff and is working to completely seal off the stormwater pipe underneath the basin.
Hundreds of crew members are responding to the spill, he said.
Scanzoni said the company had not yet initiated a cleanup of the river, but it would be working with regulators to determine the best way to do so.
"We are fully accountable for that and plan to bring the river back to its natural state as quickly as we can. We'll put all the necessary resources into that," he said.
Since 2010, DENR has been responsible for regulating and inspecting coal ash impoundments, which previously fell under the purview of the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Michele Walker, spokeswoman for DENR, said the state would order a full cleanup of the river, but that "we need it to not be pouring into the river before we can clean it up."
Walker said department staff has not provided an independent estimate of the amount of pollutants released into the river: "It's really up to the utility to make that determination. This is their facility."
Walker said DENR would conduct an investigation of the spill and that violations and fines were possible.
"We're still really early in this incident; we're still collecting data," she said. "It's going to be some time before we take some action on this incident."
Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance criticized Duke and DENR for not notifying the public about the spill until 24 hours after it was discovered on Sunday. And Lisenby -- who also helped document the 1 billion gallon coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008 -- said the company was moving too slowly to deploy cleanup equipment. She expressed concern that the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory -- a former Duke Energy employee -- would require a full cleanup of the river.
"Duke is facing a huge financial liability," she said, noting the Kingston cleanup cost the TVA about $1 billion, and a 100 million-gallon coal ash spill in 2005 cost about $37 million to clean up.
The governor's office on Thursday said McCrory had traveled to the site "to direct Duke Energy to take all needed measures to control the spill so cleanup efforts can begin as soon as possible."
McCrory said he had directed DENR Secretary John Skvarla to review any necessary changes to laws and rules to help facilitate response to future incidents.
"We need to make sure this never happens again in North Carolina," he said.
Duke Energy has retired about half of its 14 coal plants in the state, Scanzoni said, including the 65-year-old Dan River Station, which was replaced with a natural gas facility in 2012. But the coal ash basins remain. Most of the basins do not have liners that prevent seepage into the ground, and most of them are located along major waterways, Adams said.
"Most of these plants are around the 50-year-old mark," said Adams. "It's antiquated, it's outdated, it's a dangerous way to store (coal ash)."
Scanzoni said Duke Energy has 13 active coal ash basins and four retired basins across the state. The company has determined that no other ash basins in North Carolina have pipes running underneath them, he said.
He said the company has studied the issue for more than a year and is working to determine the best way to permanently close its coal ash ponds -- either by capping them with a synthetic barrier or excavating and removing them.
Last summer, DENR filed a lawsuit against Duke over alleged groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds at all 14 of the company's power plants. Appalachian Voices has asked to intervene in the lawsuit along with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"The two major utility companies in South Carolina have agreed to remove all of the coal ash from unlined pits and move them into lined landfills," Adams said. "If South Carolina utilities can do it, so can North Carolina."
Adams said that North Carolina imports more than $1 billion in coal from West Virginia each year and that "there are ways to transition to more healthy ways to get our power."
She said Appalachian Voices would continue to monitor the health of the river and conduct its own tests of public drinking water treated downstream.