More than two weeks after a massive leak of coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant poured into a river along the North Carolina-Virginia border, the full extent of damage to the environment is still unfolding.
On Tuesday, state regulators said a second stormwater pipe at the company’s plant is spilling elevated levels of arsenic into the Dan River. And federal officials issued their first assessment of the disaster, raising the specter of long-term harm to aquatic life, reaching as far as Kerr Lake.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Tuesday afternoon ordered Duke Energy to immediately halt discharges from the second pipe. Tests revealed the water was toxic, and a camera snaked into the pipe showed leaks – ranging from a trickle to gushing – where sections of the pipe joined together.
The state agency had expressed concern about the second leak on Friday, but regulators didn’t know what was in the water that was coming through the pipe and into the river until Tuesday.
The Feb. 2 spill occurred when a 48-inch reinforced concrete and corrugated steel stormwater runoff pipe beneath the ash pond broke, drawing water and between 30,000 and 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river. The second pipe, 36 inches in diameter and built in 4-foot sections, also ran under the pond. The pond has been emptied of water, but coal ash remains.
In the interest of transparency, DENR on Tuesday posted online the video inspection of the pipe at http://alturl.com/yx5zq. The department is having a briefing for reporters on Wednesday to answer criticism.
Environmentalists and others have complained of a cozy relationship between Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and Duke Energy, noting McCrory worked for Duke for 28 years. The U.S. attorney’s office has subpoenaed records between DENR and Duke going back to 2010.
Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday called on McCrory to release his correspondence with Duke Energy since he declared his candidacy for governor in 2011.
Rare species endangered
At a legislative committee meeting Monday, a Duke Energy representative said the smaller pipe would be removed even if it wasn’t found to be faulty. He said the state’s other coal ash ponds did not have stormwater pipes running beneath them.
Tuesday’s developments came a day after state regulators and Duke Energy told state legislators that the spill fell short of being catastrophic, since no fish kills had been discovered and the river posed no health threat downstream. The agency did say there was a danger to aquatic life as the ash settled onto the river bottom.
On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its first public assessment, reporting it has found extensive sandbar-like deposits of ash in the Dan River and traces of it all the way to Kerr Lake, about 65 miles north of Raleigh and 70 miles downstream of the spill, with the potential to bury fish, mussels and other aquatic life that survive in river bottoms.
The stretch of river is home to a rare fish and mussel that have been declared endangered, and another mussel that is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Though no dead fish have been found, Fish and Wildlife reported that exposing fish and mussels to coal ash could also harm gill tissues, and there could be longer-term harm because of elevated concentrations of metals in the water, Fish and Wildlife said.
The danger that the ash poses by settling on the river bottom is that it disrupts the habitat of species at the bottom of the food chain, which eventually works its way up the food chain.
“If it kills off the base of the food chain, you risk having the whole ecosystem start to collapse,” said Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “Even if you don’t kill them off, heavy metals accumulate, and that shows up in the fish people are putting on their table.”
Fish and Wildlife officials have not been able to confirm public reports of dead turtles at two parks in Virginia. The agency found too-high levels of arsenic, selenium and copper but couldn’t say whether it was connected to the spill.
Crews also found a coal ash bar 75 feet long, 15 feet wide and up to 5 feet deep composed of ash and sand, as well as smaller bars at 2 miles and 9 miles from the spill.
The agency says it doesn’t know whether the ash bars will stay where they are or move when river flows increase, as happened in the recent snow melt.
Virginia issues warnings
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources also reported that it is still testing along the river, and finding metal levels continue to decrease. The agency is also monitoring Kerr Lake.
Virginia authorities are also monitoring the waterways. That state’s health department issued an advisory last week saying short-term exposure isn’t likely to pose a threat. But while drinking water has been filtered in Danville and is considered safe, officials urge people to be cautious if boating, kayaking or swimming in the river because it might cause skin irritation.
Virginia already has an unrelated advisory from Danville to Kerr Lake, which includes parts of the Hyco River and Banister River, because fish in the two rivers have been found to have higher-than-normal levels of PCBs, a cancer-causing toxin.
Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company is cooperating with the various agencies involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating.
“We’re all taking samplings at different points and of different types,” Brooks said. “All will be essential to develop a plan for the next step.”
Gaskins, from the Catawba Riverkeeper, welcomed the information from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s helpful to have an organization with the credibility of the Fish and Wildlife Service go in and thoroughly go through it,” Gaskins said. “It raises a lot of issues.”
Although the Catawba River basin is in the southwestern part of the state, nowhere near the Dan River, Gaskins said his group is concerned because a cluster of coal ash ponds is located along the Catawba.