In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, photo, Jenny Edwards, program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, scoops coal ash from the banks of the river as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill in Eden, N.C. Duke Energy estimated that up to 82,000 tons of ash was released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant.
Gerry Broome, AP
RALEIGH, N.C. - North
Carolina officials said Tuesday that groundwater containing unsafe levels of
arsenic apparently leaching from a Duke Energy coal ash dump is still pouring
into the Dan River, which is already contaminated from a massive Feb. 2 spill.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources
ordered Duke to stop the flow of contaminated water coming out a pipe that runs
under a huge coal ash dump at its Eden power plant. A nearby pipe at the same
dump collapsed without warning two weeks ago, coating the bottom of the Dan
River with toxic ash as far as 70 miles downstream.
State regulators expressed concern five days ago that the
second pipe could fail, triggering a new spill. The water coming out of that
pipe contains poisonous arsenic at 14 times the level considered safe for human
contact, according to test results released by the state on Tuesday.
“We are ordering Duke Energy to eliminate this
unauthorized discharge immediately,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C.
Division of Water Resources.
Video taken last week by a robot sent inside the
36-inch-wide concrete pipe showed wide gaps between seams through which
groundwater is gushing in, likely from the toxic dump above.
Tests on water from the pipe before it goes under the dump
showed none of the dangerous contamination detected at the other end. The
concrete inside the pipe is heavily stained around the numerous leaks,
suggesting the contamination is likely not new.
A state inspector received the video recorded by Duke during
a Feb. 11 visit to the site, but did not review it until Thursday. On Friday night, the state agency went public
with concerns about the pipe’s structural integrity.
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan quickly issued a statement,
downplaying the risk.
“After reviewing the videotape, we determined that no
immediate action was necessary,” it said.
In the wake of the initial spill, public health officials
issued advisories telling people to avoid contact with the river water and not
eat the fish.
Authorities said public drinking water in Danville, Va., and
other communities downstream of the Duke plant remain safe. Heavy metals
detected in the river at levels exceeding state and federal safety standards -
including arsenic, lead and selenium – are being successfully filtered out of
water drawn from the river at municipal treatment plants, they said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday a massive
pile of coal ash about 75 feet long and as much as 5 feet deep has been
detected in the river by the site of the Feb. 2 spill. Deposits varying from 5
inches deep to less than 1 inch coated the river bottom across the state line
into Virginia and to Kerr Lake, a major reservoir.
Federal authorities expressed concern for what long-term
effect the contaminants will have on fish, mussels and other aquatic life.
“The deposits vary with the river characteristics, but
the short- and long-term physical and chemical impacts from the ash will need
to be investigated more thoroughly, especially with regard to mussels and fish
associated with the stream bottom and wildlife that feed on benthic
invertebrates,” said Tom Augspurger, a contaminants specialist at the
federal wildlife agency.
Benthic invertebrates are small animals that live in the
sediments of rivers and lakes, such as clams, worms and crustaceans.
The Dan River system in North Carolina and Virginia is home
to two federally listed endangered species, the Roanoke logperch fish and the
James spinymussel. The river also has another freshwater mussel, the green
floater, which is currently being evaluated for protection under the U.S.
Endangered Species Act.
Officials said the coal ash is burying aquatic animals and
their food. The ash, generated when coal is burned to generate electricity,
could also clog gill tissues in fish and mussels. The agency said public
reports of dead aquatic turtles at two state parks in Virginia had not yet been
verified by federal biologists.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned that
increased flow in the river resulting from last week’s snowfall and rain threatens
to wash the toxic ash even further downstream. The Dan flows back across into
North Carolina before emptying into the Albemarle Sound.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy announced Tuesday that its
fourth-quarter profits jumped 58 percent after officials in North Carolina and
other states approved hikes in the rates customers pay for electricity. The
company had revenues of $ 24.6 billion for 2013.
George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and
legislative affairs, told state legislators this week that the company is sorry
for the spill and will be accountable.
Any costs incurred because of the cleanup will likely be
passed on to ratepayers, not shareholders, he said.
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