Experts have only just started getting a handle on the environmental and health impacts of Sunday’s spill of tens of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash from a shuttered coal plant in North Carolina. But you don’t need to be an expert to see that the spill into Dan River has done a lot of damage. The pictures, videos, and personal accounts of the spill are astonishing in their grotesqueness. The AP reports:
An Associated Press reporter canoed downstream of the spill at the Dan River Steam Station and saw gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.
[Brian] Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.
“How do you clean this up?” he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his paddle. “Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can’t clean this up. It’s going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.”
Before the spill, Duke Energy had insisted that its coal-ash dump sites posed no environmental threats. Now the company is still trying to figure out how to plug the gaping hole in a pipeline that allowed coal residue to flood out of holding ponds and into the river. From Bloomberg:
Duke’s priority is to stop the leak, Meghan Musgrave, a spokeswoman for the largest U.S. utility owner in Charlotte, said yesterday in a telephone interview. The rate of spillage declined Feb. 4 after the pond emptied and has fluctuated since then because of rain and repairs, Musgrave said. Duke estimates that the pond contained 992,000 tons of ash and that about 10 percent has spilled, she said.
From the Business Journal:
‘The Waterkeeper Alliance says it found arsenic and other heavy metals at up to 30 times the Dan River’s normal levels in samples taken Tuesday near the coal ash spill from Duke Energy’s closed Dan River Steam Station.
Donna Lisenby, the alliance’s Global Coal Campaign coordinator, says she took samples near the river bank at the location of the pipe that broke Sunday and sent up to 82,000 tons of ash into the river. At that point, the ash still formed a plume that hugged the bank, she says.
She took more samples two miles farther down stream, where the ash had dispersed and turned the river gray. She also took samples up river of the spill to establish the normal levels of pollutants in the river.
The samples were tested by a certified water quality laboratory, and the results came back Thursday.
“Compared to the levels found in a ‘background’ water sample taken upstream of the spill, arsenic levels immediately downstream of the spill are nearly 30 times higher, chromium levels are more than 27 times higher, and lead levels are more than 13 times higher because of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste,” the alliance said in a release issued Thursday.
The arsenic level, the alliance says, was greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality criteria to protect “fish and wildlife from acute risks of injury or death.”
Lead and other contaminants also exceeded federal guidelines, according to the alliance.
Lisenby says her organization is not disputing test results Duke has released from the municipal water intakes for Danville, Va., and South Boston, Va., which are miles farther downstream from where she took her samples.’
‘“While it is early in the investigation and state officials do not yet know of any possible impacts to water quality, staff members have been notifying downstream communities with drinking water intakes,” the North Carolina environmental agency reported late Monday afternoon.
Danville, Va.’s water intake is about 6 miles downstream of the pond.
Barry Dunkley, the city’s water director, said in a release that “all water leaving our treatment facility has met public health standards. We do not anticipate any problems going forward in treating the water we draw from the Dan River.”
A 1-billion gallon spill of ash slurry at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Tennessee in 2008 ignited national debate over coal ash.
Last week the EPA, which had been sued by two North Carolina environmental groups among others, said it would issue the first federal rules on ash-handling by December.
Duke has closed seven of its 14 North Carolina coal-fired power plants, including Dan River, and is evaluating ways to close the ash ponds at those sites. Groundwater contamination has been found around all 14 of its unlined ash ponds, although much of the contamination may occur naturally.
Ash ponds are at the Allen power plant in Gaston County near Belmont and at the Riverbend plant on Mountain Island Lake near Mount Holly.
North Carolina environmental officials, pressured by advocacy groups, sued Duke last year over ash handling at all its coal plants. Environmentalists say Duke should remove the ash from the retired ponds, as utilities in South Carolina have agreed to do.’