It was going on 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, when Jeffrey Childs returned to the emergency management communications center from a break carrying a soda and the state’s environmental hotline phone, which started to ring.
On the line was Allen Stowe, a Duke Energy environmental specialist, reporting a wastewater spill into the Dan River. Childs clicked through a checklist of questions on form EM-43, which is where state emergency management officials collect preliminary information to help them determine how to respond to potential disasters.
How much has been released? Childs asked. I don’t know, Stowe replied. Is it a drinking water source? Not there. Any fish killed that you know of? No.
Not sensing any urgency from the Duke Energy official that would have clued him in about the scale of the spill, Childs noted the incident in a daily log and didn’t alert the on-call water quality specialist. The phone call didn’t meet the Division of Emergency Management’s protocol to alert state environmental regulators. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources isn’t required to be notified unless more than 15,000 gallons of wastewater is spilled, or if fish are killed or a public water supply is contaminated.
As it turned out, tens of millions of gallons of coal ash and water were spilled, drinking water had to be treated downstream in Virginia, and the massive coal ash leak’s impact on aquatic life is not yet known.
DENR didn’t find out about that for 17 1/2 hours after the spill was discovered. At that point the agency scrambled experts to the site near Eden to assess what would quickly become the third-largest coal ash spill in the country. By then, Duke was still trying to stop the leak from a broken underground stormwater pipe, and state regulators were playing catch-up.
“I just wish it had been characterized correctly so we could have responded appropriately,” DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said this week.
The delay in notification was mentioned to the state Environmental Review Commission last week, but at that point DENR couldn’t explain to the members why it happened. Records The News & Observer obtained from the Department of Public Safety provide that explanation.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy referred questions about the delay to the comments a company official made at the commission meeting. George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs, said that when the company began notifying city and county officials, they didn’t know how big the spill was.
First sign: A low pond
A security guard had noticed about 2:30 p.m. that the level of a pond where the ash is stored was conspicuously low. It was later in the afternoon when Duke specialists arrived and discovered the collapsed pipe.
“Now recognize, at this point what we know is there is some material that’s leaving the pond through the stormwater pipe going into the river,” Everett told the committee, which is comprised of state legislators. “We don’t know how big a volume. We know there’s some ash in it. But our notification was that there was a release from the ash pond into the river.”
The company called DENR’s regional office in Winston-Salem that Sunday night but didn’t reach anyone. Then Duke called the Division of Emergency Management office in Raleigh.
The phone call wasn’t recorded, as it typically would be, because Childs had transferred all calls to the portable phone he carried to the cafeteria on a break, according to Public Safety records. That leaves a key piece of information in dispute: Childs recalled that he asked Stowe if any assistance from the state was needed, and Stowe replied no. A Duke spokeswoman said Tuesday that isn’t how Stowe recalls the conversation, and that he disputes that’s what he said.
The next morning, Duke called the regional DENR office again and spoke to an employee. Everett told legislators the third phone call was to be sure that the state was fully apprised of what was happening.
In response, DENR scrambled half a dozen people from the regional office and headquarters in Raleigh, a contingent that grew in the following days: water quality specialists, dam inspectors, staffers taking samples, administrators, and public affairs, compliance and permitting personnel.
Protocol deemed sufficient
At 5:30 p.m. Feb. 3, Duke issued its first news release informing the public about the spill. It estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million to 27 million gallons of water had been released – a number that it later scaled back to 30,000 to 39,000 tons of ash. Wake Forest University, using drones and three-dimensional modeling, estimates the total spill was as much as 35 million gallons of ash and water.
DENR and Public Safety have gone over how the emergency management employee handled the report from Duke and agreed that the protocol that was in place was sufficient. DENR once required reporting any spill of more than 1,000 gallons rather than 15,000 but found that covered too many incidents, overwhelming emergency management and the on-call water quality division staffer, records indicate.
The current checklist is meant to trigger regulators’ response if a spill is at least 15,000 gallons, but it doesn’t require notification if the amount isn’t immediately known.
DENR thinks Duke Energy should have also been compelled under another state law requiring notification to the agency that it had an environmental emergency on its hands. The statute defines that kind of emergency as “an unexpected situation or sudden occurrence of a serious and urgent nature that is ongoing and/or threatens air, water, soil, people, animals or property, and demands immediate action and if not addressed, it may get worse.”
The day before the Dan River spill, the Emergency Management communications center received a call about a sewer overflow in Charlotte, a spokeswoman says. Emergency Management relayed the information that Saturday to a water-quality official who was on-call, who in turn called an agency public affairs staffer at home.
“If they (Duke) had communicated clearly, it would have, like the other call, made it up the channel,” said DENR spokeswoman Susan Massengale.
Duke, meanwhile, thought it had conveyed the seriousness of the situation and notes that it made three separate attempts to notify the state. Further, the delay didn’t hold up the company’s efforts to plug the leak.