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This broken stormwater pipe released tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and millions of
gallons of coal ash basin water into the Dan River last week. Photo courtesy of Appalachian

Originally published: 2014-02-10 11:12:48
Last modified: 2014-02-10 11:42:30

Groups differ on Dan River water quality

by Anna Oakes

As Duke Energy continued work to seal off a broken stormwater pipe that drained thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River in Eden, public agencies and environmental groups drew differing conclusions from water quality test results received late last week.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Friday reported water quality tests results from samples taken Feb. 3 and 4, with most of the 34 standards tested meeting standards for human health and aquatic life. Concentrations of arsenic, copper, iron and aluminum exceeded surface water standards, but the levels had decreased from Feb. 3 to Feb. 4, DENR said.

"This analysis is the first step in a process to accurately characterize any impacts from the spill to the Dan River and determine appropriate action going forward," said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. "We hope to see these levels continue to decrease as mitigation efforts progress."

Duke Energy said Friday that its water sampling results were consistent with those of DENR. A Duke Energy spokesman said the company has been sharing its test results with regulatory authorities, but the company has not publicized its results.

The Danville, Va., water department, which has an intake on the Dan River downstream of the spill site, said results from samples taken Feb. 4 at the intake site found no detectable levels of antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, silver or selenium and that detected levels of boron, calcium, copper, magnesium, sodium and zinc did not exceed public health standards for drinking water. 

The department noted that iron exceeded drinking water standards, but was easily removed through routine water treatment. The utility said it is continuing to take samples.

While DENR, Duke and the city of Danville focused on any impacts to drinking water, environmental groups responding to the spill called attention to other damaging effects of the spill.

"The testing results so far indicate that downstream drinking water supplies are safe, but there are likely to be major ecological impacts from this spill," Boone-based Appalachian Voices said in a Friday news release.

The release noted Appalachian Voices' water quality samples taken Feb. 4 two miles downstream from the spill and at the Danville intake site exceeded drinking water standards for arsenic, aluminum, iron, manganese and lead. The organization explained that its samples were unfiltered and included ash particles suspended in the water, while samples taken by Duke and DENR were filtered samples that did not contain heavy metals that bind to sediment.

Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices, said the organization is also awaiting the results of sediment testing. DENR said it began collecting sediment samples from the river bottom on Friday.

"In addition to dissolved metals (in the water), figuring out what's in the sediment is also important," Chance said. Ash particles in the sediment could be re-suspended and "continue to be in water for some time," he said. "These are certainly likely to cause ecological problems right now and down the road."

Chance was cautious in declaring the treated drinking water from the river to be safe, noting that "we don't want to cause undue alarm," but that Appalachian Voices planned to conduct its own tests of treated drinking water in the coming days. 

The Waterkeeper Alliance was the first to publish water quality tests results, reporting on Thursday that samples taken immediately downstream of the spill site exhibited "extremely high levels" of arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals. Levels of arsenic exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards for risks of injury or death to fish and wildlife for acute and chronic exposure, the group said.

"Duke could have avoided contaminating the Dan River and poisoning Virginia's water supplies if it had removed its toxic ash heaps years ago after being warned by EPA," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, in a statement Thursday.

Duke Energy on Friday apologized for the coal ash spill and pledged to clean up the river.

"We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river," said Paul Newton, N.C. Duke Energy president, in a statement. "We will do the right thing for the river and surrounding communities. We are accountable."

The company said it is designing a long-term river cleanup plan in close coordination with federal and state environmental agencies, including EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DENR.

Blue Ridge Electric, the cooperative that provides electricity to Watauga County and Boone area utility New River Light and Power, purchases its electricity from Duke Energy.