Immediate impact of coal-ash spill debated, long-term harm to environment expected

by Jordan Green

Dressed in neon green reflective vests, Duke Energy employees, regulators from various government agencies and engineers stood on a berm surveying what had once been a sprawling coal-ash basin at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden last week.

What was left of the 27-acre basin after a nearby storm-water pipe ruptured on Feb. 2 and discharged 50,000 to 82,000 tons of ash into the Dan River was a desolate topography of sludge that resembled a blackened Grand Canyon in miniature.

Paige Sheehan, a company spokesperson, pointed from a truck parked on a promontory above the drained basin to a cut made in the berm. Workers were building a platform to move equipment in place to plug the hole in the 48-inch pipe. The utility company was also exploring the option of sealing the break from the river. Sheehan said a permanent repair would likely involve some kind of grout made out of cement and rocks.

The coal-fueled power plant was retired from service in 2012.

The Feb. 2 discharge released the equivalent of 20 to 32 Olympic-size swimming pools of coal ash into the river. The discharge point is located downstream from the intake plant for Eden’s waterworks, sparing the town from harm. Early test results of water samples in Danville, Va. — about 20 miles downstream —confirmed two days after the discharge that water drawn from the river and treated by city facilities met public health standards, the city reported.

“The normal water treatment facility, they’re designed to treat a vast array of conditions that come in through the source,” said Alan Johnson, the water treatment manager at Danville Utilities. “With that in mind, they design water treatment plants to treat different applications, and that helped remove any of the particulate matter from the discharge.”

NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary John Skvarla echoed that assurance in a statement two days after the spill, contending that water treated by nearby municipal facilities is safe to drink.

Scott Smith, a regional fisheries manager for the Southern Piedmont Region employed with the state of Virginia, described the Dan River as “a nice charcoal gray” from the discharge point to the upper reaches of the Kerr Reservoir, which the plume reached two days after the spill.

Environmental regulators from Virginia and North Carolina, along with the federal government, found no evidence of immediate fish kills, Smith said. Officials from both states also found no deviation in normal levels of temperature, acidity, oxygen and conductivity.

The long-term effects on Dan River — which winds along the North Carolina-Virginia state line, and then feeds into the Roanoke River, which in turn empties into the Albemarle Sound — are far more vexing.

“It looks like the primary impacts are going to be habitat related,” Smith said. “You’ve got all this fine coal-ash material that settles out into everything. You’re going to cover the bottom with black sediment…. Coal ash tends to be high in certain metals, particularly selenium. That stuff is chronically toxic. It doesn’t kill things right away, but it has a chronic, long-term impact on certain fresh-water mussels and insects that live in the streambed.”

Smith added that a kill-off of mussels and other creatures in the streambed could have adverse effects further up the food chain and that the river’s capacity to support wildlife will likely be impaired.

The Roanoke Logperch, a small freshwater fish that is listed by the federal government as an endangered species, has been found two miles upstream from the spill site, according to the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The agency released a factsheet last week that described the fish as “a highly mobile species” that likely “inhabits the Dan River downstream of the spill.”

COAL: ‘We have been working with the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the path forward’

Three species listed as endangered or threatened by the state of North Carolina live in the river downstream of the spill, including the Green Floater mussel, the Bigeye Jumprock fish and the Riverweed Darter, which only occurs in the Dan River and its tributaries. The agency said a fourth species, the Roanoke Hogsucker — found only in the Dan River — is considered “significantly rare.” The fish is not on any official state or federal listing — “not endangered, not threatened, not of special concern,” in agency parlance — which would create regulatory ramifications.

Waterkeeper Alliance and Yadkin Riverkeeper, two environmental advocacy groups, have raised strident alarms, while a rapid-response squad of spokespersons from Duke Energy has continually emphasized that drinking water remains safe.

“There are levels of arsenic and lead that are damaging to fish and wildlife that are well above the EPA’s chronic and acute wildlife criteria,” said Donna Lisenby, who is the global coal campaigner for Waterkeeper Alliance.

Based on testing of water samples taken immediately downstream from the discharge site on Feb. 4, Waterkeeper Alliance and Yadkin Riverkeeper found levels of arsenic that were 30 times higher than upstream from the site. A couple miles downstream, at the Highway 700 Bridge, test results by the environmental groups revealed levels of arsenic and iron only slightly higher than the upstream site, while lead levels were slightly lower.

The NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or NC DENR, released results on the evening of Friday, Feb. 7 from testing that showed high levels of arsenic, copper, iron and aluminum, which exceeded state standards. Levels of copper, iron and aluminum were excessive both upstream and downstream from the spill site, but “far greater downstream than upstream,” the agency said.

Messages from Duke Energy and the state agency charged with protecting the environment in North Carolina struck somewhat clashing notes four days after the spill. While Duke Energy emphasized the safety of drinking water, NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials reminded the public that the test results do not mean that the water is safe.

In contrast to Waterkeeper Alliance, DENR did not take a sample from the discharge site. Susan Massengale, a spokesperson with the state Division of Water Quality, said that as part of Duke Energy’s permitting requirements the utility regularly monitors water quality at the outfall for the power plant.

“What we want to be able to determine is realistically when that gets into the river and you have the influence of the river on the discharge and the influence of the discharge on the river, that intersection — which is the river’s health — is what we’re interested in.”

Duke Energy has emphasized that the utility has shared all of its test results with state and federal agencies, as well as downstream municipalities, such as Danville. Lisenby challenged Duke Energy to release its results.

“Just like what we observed when BP had a spill in the Gulf, they do not release sample results of what they are discharging into the river because they are liable for damages if they disclosed that they have harmed people, property and aquatic life downstream,” she said. “They need to release the sample results for water affecting fish and aquatic life, along with property owners who are affected. They need to reveal what’s in the water and the impacts that are most acute and have the potential to accumulate in wildlife. It’s great that they’re talking about the people who are 20 miles downstream, but at Ground Zero is where the impacts need to be measured and disclosed.”

Duke Energy declined to release its own test results to YES! Weekly. Meghan Musgrave, a spokesperson, responded to a request for the results by directing a reporter to the utility’s latest news release, which stated that water quality downstream from the Dan River continued to improve while omitting quantitative data.

The utility also did not respond directly to questions about its assessment of the impact of the spill on wildlife or whether any plans are under consideration to remove the discharge from the river. Both questions elicited nearly identical responses from Musgrave, reflecting a carefully crafted message.

“We have been working with the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the path forward to take care of the river,” she said in response to the question about the impact on wildlife, offering a slight variation to the question about remediation.

Environmentalists have leveled charges that Duke Energy failed to act when they might easily have prevented the spill.

“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 the EPA,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in a prepared statement.

A 2009 report submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency by Paul C. Rizzo Associates, an international engineering firm, characterized the coal-ash ponds at the Dan River Steam Station as “significant hazard potential structures.”

The report went on to describe coalash ponds with that classification as “structures where failure is not likely to result in loss of life, but may cause significant economic loss, environmental damage, [and] disruption of lifeline activities.

“The predominant risk of failure for the primary and secondary ponds is environmental damage,” the firm reported.

Lisa Hoffmann, another Duke spokesperson said the utility will work with the EPA, NC DENR and Wildlife Services to devise a cleanup plan.

“The EPA high hazard potential ratings for ash ponds are assigned due to the potential environmental damage that could result from an ash release in the event of a pond failure, and are not an indication of the structural integrity of the ash ponds,” she said in an e-mail to YES! Weekly. “We absolutely recognize that we’re accountable for this ash spill and we’re taking responsibility for environmental cleanup.

“We’ll take what we’ve learned at Dan River and look at other ash basins with a fresh eye, doing what’s nec- essary now and in the long term to further assure their safety. !