Eden, N.C. — Four days after tons of toxic coal ash flowed into the Dan River from a defunct Duke Energy power plant, Gov. Pat McCrory and a top lawmaker on Thursday urged a speedy clean-up of the spill and hinted at possible new regulations for other coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
Duke initially estimated up to 82,000 tons of ash spilled from two ponds at a coal-fired plant in Eden that the utility closed two years ago after a stormwater pipe that ran under the ponds ruptured. McCrory's office said Thursday that the company is working on a revised estimate of the size of the spill.
“This is a serious spill, and we need to get it under control as quickly as possible,” McCrory said in a statement. “Our top priorities are ensuring the health and safety of the public, as well as the wildlife in the Dan River vicinity and the river itself, and the best way to do that is to get this controlled and cleaned up.”
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the utility has hundreds of people working to repair the leak, and the flow of ash into the river has been slowed to a trickle – and shut off completely at times.
The company also is taking samples of water at 11 spots downstream of the spill, Sheehan said.
"Drinking water is absolutely safe downstream. That's great news," she said. "We're looking very closely at any potential environmental impact."
The ash, which is left over after coal is burned to power electric plants, contains arsenic, mercury, lead, boron and other heavy metals. Scientists say the contaminants don't readily dissolve in water. Rather, they sink to the bottom of the river.
"Those heavy metals can stay there for a while, so then you have to worry about them getting dredged up again if you have a flood or something like that," said Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources.
Reeder said state regulators also are taking water samples from the river and are keeping tabs on Duke's efforts.
Danville, Va., which is about 25 miles downstream from Eden, continues to draw drinking water from the Dan River, and officials there said they haven't seen a decline in water quality.
Pete Harrison, an attorney for the Waterkeepers Alliance environmental group said he doubts the accuracy of Duke's tests. The group said its tests show arsenic levels in the water 10 times higher than the trace amounts reported by Duke.
"A citizen group was able to obtain lab results for heavy metals that's alarmingly high before state regulators could. That's an abject failure," Harrison said.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources released its preliminary test results late Thursday, saying elevated levels of copper were found in the water but 16 other parameters, including several metals, showed no violations of water-quality standards.
DENR is testing for 28 metals, sulfates, nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids. Other tests haven't been completed.
“The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health,” Reeder said in a statement. “We continue to monitor the situation and are especially concerned about the deposition of coal ash residuals in the sediments underlying the Dan River and how that could affect the long-term health of the river.”
The gray sludge that choked the river early in the week had dissipated, and it was flowing freely Thursday when McCrory and DENR Secretary John Skvarla visited the spill site.
"We're going to double-check everything that Duke is doing to ensure that we have a short-term solution and a long-term solution," McCrory said.
In a news release issued by his office, McCrory also hinted at the possibility that the spill could lead to new regulations for coal ash ponds in the state.
"We will continue to be here on-site throughout the cleanup efforts and subsequent investigation of this incident. We need to make sure this never happens again in North Carolina,” he said in the statement.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger likewise called for steps to prevent future spills, asking a key environmental committee to investigate the Dan River spill. The river runs through his legislative district in Rockingham County.
"I am very concerned about recent reports of the discharge of untreated waste into the Haw River and the discharge of coal ash into the Dan River. I am also very concerned about the quality and timeliness of the responses of everyone involved," Berger wrote in a letter to the committee co-chairs.