NC regulators, Duke assure NC lawmakers coal ash spill poses no immediate health threat

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2014 

— State environmental regulators and a Duke Energy executive assured state lawmakers Monday that Duke’s accidental spewing of tons of coal ash into the Dan River poses no immediate threat to public health.

The hastily scheduled hearing was the first update lawmakers had received on the environmental accident, but it offered few specifics on how and when North Carolina will go about cleaning up the river and preventing other coal ash accidents.

The N.C. Environmental Review Commission, consisting of House and Senate legislators, heard nearly three hours of statements on the spill in Rockingham County that has resulted in a public warning not to eat fish from the Dan River and nationally televised images of a grayish, batter-like goop clogging the waterway that winds through the North Carolina-Virginia border.

While several state legislators have called for a quick legislative fix, lawmakers Monday said they lacked sufficient information to take action and expected it would take many months before clear solutions emerged.

“We’re poised to act and we’re willing, but we’re also trying to make sense of a lot of fast-moving stuff,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Mecklenburg County, one of the three co-chairs of the commission, after the hearing.

Samuelson said lawmakers are awaiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision on whether the feds will regulate the nation’s coal ash pits, which are built next to coal-burning power plants. She also said last week’s federal subpoena requesting four years of communications between Charlotte-based Duke and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources could yield additional information to help guide lawmakers on how to proceed.

One of the largest spills

The Feb. 2 accident on the Dan River near Eden was one of the nation’s largest coal ash spills and is being monitored on site by the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The spill was caused by the collapse of a 48-inch drainage pipe that was built more than a half-century ago and ran under a 27-acre lagoon filled with a mixture of coal ash and water. The lagoon, adjacent to the river, served a Duke power plant that has been converted to natural gas power generation.

Duke and officials with DENR echoed each other in asserting that the spill was not catastrophic.

“We noted no fish kills as a result of this release,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, one of the divisions of DENR.

But Reeder noted the ash is settling on the river bottom and endangering species that dwell there. DENR will take fish tissue samples to assess long-term risk.

“If you’re a mollusk and covered with ash, then yeah, you’re gonna die,” Reeder said.

State and Duke officials also said the Dan River poses no immediate health risk or problems for downstream water treatment plants that serve Danville, Va., and other communities.

At the same time, officials said they have begun testing water quality at the John H. Kerr Reservoir in Virginia. Layers of gray ash have darkened the Dan River, which feeds into the reservoir, about 80 miles downstream from the spill.

DENR is working with counterparts in Virginia and is monitoring water quality at five sites.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’

Environmental activists blamed the accident on years of flawed design and weak oversight resulting from lack of federal regulation of coal ash pits. Critics of the pits have primarily focused on the structural integrity of the berms that hold back the slurry and on the seepage of arsenic and other toxins from the lagoons. North Carolina has 14 coal ash sites, some with multiple pits.

“Each of the coal ash lagoons is a disaster waiting to happen,” testified Frank Holleman III, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Holleman’s center represents environmental groups that threatened to sue the utility company over its handling of coal ash ponds, prompting DENR to intervene and secure a settlement with Duke requiring the company to pay a $99,111 fine.

The settlement between Duke and DENR, proposed in October, is on hold as the agency has asked the Wake County Superior Court to delay ruling on the deal in the wake of the coal ash accident.

George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs, detailed the company’s day-by-day response to the spill, with failed attempts to plug the gushing culvert pipe with a concrete bulkhead. The spill finally subsided when some 27 million gallons of water drained from the lagoon and a platform constructed for emergency operations collapsed into the sludge pit and buried the broken pipe in tons of rubble.

“All that material went into the pipe,” Reeder explained to lawmakers. “That platform collapsed into the pipe and plugged it.”

Questions about the safety of the nation’s coal ash ponds broke into the public consciousness in 2008 in the wake of a massive spill in Tennessee caused by a collapsed dike at a coal ash lagoon owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. North Carolina activists soon afterward began alleging that this state’s coal ash pits seep toxins into nearby rivers and urged DENR to be more aggressive in monitoring and enforcement.

Duke took responsibility for the Dan River spill and vowed to take steps to fix the problem. The company said the Dan River Steam Station is the only facility that had drainage pipes built under coal ash ponds.

“We are accountable,” Everett said. “We apologize that this incident occurred.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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