@NCCapitol

DENR orders Duke to plug second coal ash leak immediately

Posted February 18, 2014 3:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2014 7:18 p.m. EST

Coal ash

— State environmental regulators on Tuesday ordered Duke Energy to immediately halt discharges from a leaking stormwater pipe at a shuttered power plant in Eden where a rupture in a second pipe led to a massive spill of coal ash in the Dan River two weeks ago.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued the order after tests showed elevated levels of arsenic in the river near the discharge. The results are a key indicator of the presence of coal ash, officials said.

"Given what we’ve seen, we’re concerned that this second stormwater pipe on site may also be leaking water contaminated with coal ash pollutants into the Dan River,” Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, said in a statement. “As such, we are ordering Duke Energy to eliminate this unauthorized discharge immediately."

DENR will factor the new discharge into any enforcement action taken because of the coal ash spill, officials said.

Federal officials said Tuesday that toxic coal ash has coated the bottom of a North Carolina river as many as 70 miles downstream of the Eden power plant.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised that a pile of coal ash about 75 feet long and as much as 5 feet deep has been detected on the bottom of the Dan River near 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. Public health officials have advised people to avoid contact with the water and not eat the fish.

"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.

Authorities said public drinking water in Danville, Va., and other communities downstream of the spill site 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. 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.

Meanwhile, Democratic legislative leaders are urging Gov. Pat McCrory to release publicly all correspondence over the last three years between him and Duke, his former employer.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt and House Minority Leader Larry Hall sent McCrory a letter Tuesday stating that more transparency in his relationship with Duke could boost public confidence in his administration's ability to respond to the ash spill.

"North Carolina families deserve to have confidence in the purity of their drinking water and the integrity of your administration in ensuring proper safety regulations and oversight," the letter said. "Unfortunately, as a consequence of this spill, as well as recent reports detailing your administration's relationship with Duke Energy and the Department of (Environment) and Natural Resources' intervention in several lawsuits against Duke Energy by the Southern Environmental Law Center, this confidence no longer exists."

McCrory last week became irritated when reporters asked him about the response to the ash spill and his Duke ties during a news conference about the state response to a winter storm.

On Monday, DENR Secretary John Skvarla told lawmakers that McCrory told him to protect the environment and "do what's right" when he briefed the governor about plans to sue Duke over its coal ash ponds. Environmental advocates insist that the state action occurred only after the SELC and other groups tried to sue Duke separately.