Dan River Update: February 20, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Appalachian Voices/Eric Chance

Dan River Update: DENR Investigates More Leaks and Possible Cleanup Efforts

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) mandated Tuesday, February 18, 2014 that Duke Energy repair leaks in a second storm water pipe at the Dan River power plant in Rockingham County.

While assessing information on the pipes provided by Duke Energy, DENR officials found leaks at the pipe’s joints. DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said in an email that after crews discovered the leaks, DENR sought immediate action from Duke Energy.

“It’s prudent that we require Duke Energy to start working on a plan and schedule to fix the leaking pipe.”

After initial tests showed elevated levels of arsenic in the leaking pipe’s discharge, DENR ordered Duke Energy to immediately repair the leaks. While Duke Energy has temporarily sealed the leaks, spokeswoman Catherine Butler says the company is still searching for a long-term solution.

“Our crews are working on a plan to permanently seal the pipe and prevent any further ash from entering the Dan River,” Butler said.

Meanwhile, water quality has improved since the initial spill on Feb. 2, and downstream towns that get their water from the Dan River have announced that the water is safe to drink again after normal treatment procedures. As the initial problems with water quality die down, DENR has shifted its focus to the environmental impacts of the first spill.

Apart from continued water quality testing at four points in the river (three downstream of the plant and one upstream), DENR is now also testing the Dan’s sediment for coal ash and contaminants to see how much of the coal ash has settled to the bottom of the river. Kritzer says DENR is also testing insect and plant populations and will soon begin testing fish tissue, to see whether toxins from the coal ash are getting into the fish.

“We are extending our understanding of the effects of the spill and will be better able to determine a strategy for the long-term cleanup of the Dan River,” Kritzer said.

Duke Energy is currently working on a long-term plan to clean up the Dan River. After a similar but larger spill in 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority was required to dredge coal ash from two nearby rivers.

Kritzer says that in the meantime, any large deposits of coal ash found in the Dan River will be removed. Cleanup efforts, however, have been slowed by increased flow in the river due to the recent snow and rain storms.

Last week, DENR also announced that they would create a coal ash task force to assess all the coal ash ponds in North Carolina. The group of water quality, dam resources and solid waste management experts will examine coal ash storage facilities statewide.

“We must ensure that these ash ponds do not pose a threat to the citizens of North Carolina or the environment,” said DENR secretary John Skvarla in a press release. “We were already addressing coal ash ponds through our multiple lawsuits against Duke Energy and we will continue on that course once we have an updated assessment of the situation statewide.”

Those lawsuits sought to require Duke Energy to address water quality issues related to coal ash ponds in Gaston County and Asheville. The state asked the presiding judge last Monday to postpone a settlement related to these two sites until the State investigates the Dan River incident.

The state will continue to pursue those lawsuits after the task force releases its findings.

The latest test results and information on the Dan River spill can be found here.

- 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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