Coal Ash Spill in Dan River

Photo Courtesy of Appalachian Voices/Eric Chance

Coal Ash Spill in the Dan River: DENR Still Testing for Coal Ash Metals

North Carolina Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) officials announced on February 5, 2014 that they expect results from water quality testing in the Dan River by the end of the week.

A storm water pipe at a Duke Energy power plant in Rockingham County burst Sunday, February 2, 2014, carrying up to 82,000 tons of coal ash and 25 million gallons of polluted water to the nearby Dan River.

Coal ash is a waste product from coal-burning power plants and resembles the soot that builds up in fireplaces and chimneys. The main difference is that coal ash has a higher metal content and DENR scientists are testing water from the Dan River for 27 metals including lead, cadmium and mercury.

“Protecting public health and the environment is our No. 1 priority and the results [of the tests] will hopefully provide us with meaningful information about any effects we’re seeing to water quality,” said DENR secretary John Skvarla in a press release.

Preliminary test results released Tuesday, February 4, 2014 showed that the coal ash spill did not significantly alter the temperature, pH or dissolved oxygen content (all major indicators of water quality) in the Dan River.

According to Duke Energy, on-site tests showed lead and arsenic levels of less than two parts-per-billion (almost too small for instruments to measure). Some downstream cities such as Danville and Virginian Beach, Va., however, have for the time being stopped drawing water from the Dan and the reservoirs it feeds.

The current industry standard for coal ash disposal is storage in large open ponds. These ash ponds are permitted and inspected by the NC Division of Water Resources.

Photo Courtesy of Appalachian VoicesIn Rockingham County, a storm water drainage pipe running underneath the ash pond burst, leaking into the ash pond and creating a stream of coal ash that flowed into the Dan River.

Duke Energy crews are working day-and-night to stop the flow of ash into the Dan River, both by sealing the pipe and blocking the ash’s flow to the river, says Duke Energy spokeswoman Meghan Musgrave. 

“We’re approaching this from multiple angles,” Musgrave said.

Musgrave also says that the flow of water from the broken pipe is slowing down, but Duke Energy does not have a specific timetable for sealing the pipe.

While according to Duke Energy the water in the Dan River can be filtered for safe drinking using conventional water treatment methods, environmentalists say the coal ash may have broader impacts on local plants and animals.

Eric Chance, a water quality expert from the environmental group Appalachian Voices, says there may be a delayed impact from the large amount of coal ash sediment in the Dan.

“We’re concerned about heavy metals and the long-term effect they might have on the local aquatic life,” Chance said.

He went on to say that heavy metals can be passed on up the food chain. Basically, anything that eats the aquatic life is eating its heavy metals as well.

Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups have lobbied the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for coal ash regulation since an ash pond in Kingston, Tenn. broke its containment in 2008, covering 300 acres of land and rivers with wet coal ash.

Yet the EPA has no regulations in place for coal ash disposal or containment.

“It’s one of the largest waste streams in the country,” Chance said. “And it’s regulated less than household garbage.”

The EPA agreed just last week to impose some sort of regulation over how power companies must dispose of their coal ash. The new regulations will take effect by December 2014, but the EPA has not said specifically what the new rules will be. Environmentalists like Chance are pushing for dry containers – that is, not connected to a waterway like a pond – and lining the containers so that ash cannot seep into the ground.

“We hope that this spill will encourage the EPA to put in strong regulations,” Chance said.

Cleanup in the Dan River, however, will need to begin before the new rules take effect. In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to dredge as much coal ash out of the nearby rivers as it could and move its ash pond to a more secure holding area. Depending on how the EPA and the states of North Carolina and Virginia decide, Duke Energy may have to do the same.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.

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