Environment
4:07 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

North Carolina Coal Ash Spill Causes Concerns About Public Drinking Water

State and federal environmental officials are continuing their investigations of a coal ash spill into the Dan River in Rockingham County.

Scientists with Appalachian Voices are collecting water samples from the Dan River in Eden.
Credit Photo by Eric Chance / Appalachian Voices

Duke Energy reported that the spill happened Sunday afternoon.  The company estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden. That’s around the volume of ash that would fill between 20 and 32 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“This is a massive disaster. For two miles downstream, the river is dark and thick, a milky gray. It’s just eery. The ash has apparently reached about 20 miles downstream to Danville,” said Matt Wasson, Director of Programs, Ph.D. in Ecology from Cornell University

Wasson is with a team of scientists from Appalachian Voices. They are taking water samples near the spill.

Coal ash is the waste left after burning.  It contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of them toxic. Amy Adams,  also with Appalachian Voices, said she's concerned about drinking water supplies.

“There are water intakes further downstream that are used for public water supply and our concern is that those water supplies may be contaminated, or have the potential to be contaminated from this coal ash spill,” said Adams.

“We just learned from West Virginia, and this is a larger spill than West Virginia had, just how devastating those spills can be to public water intakes,” added Adams.

In a news release, Duke Energy said it has been monitoring water quality and has had some success stemming the spillage.

"A top priority Tuesday is to safely insert a camera into the storm water pipe so experts can engineer the appropriate permanent solution. We’re planning to grout and plug the line to eliminate the discharge and provide long-term stability. Also Tuesday, a team with ash basin expertise will attempt to clear the area in front of the pipe with heavy equipment to learn more about the break," said a Duke Energy spokesperson in an email to WFDD's Keri Brown.

Adams said she hopes the situation will bring more attention to how companies handle dry coal ash.

“The best technology available at the moment to Duke and to other coal-fired power plants is to utilize dry coal ash in lined landfills or lined coal ash pits and that is not what we have at this plant. It illustrates the very serious potential for the coal ash to escape into these river systems,” said Adams.

Duke Energy officials say water sampling continues at six locations from the plant to the Danville municipal water system. Late last night, Danville continued to report no challenges treating water and meeting safe drinking water standards.

The company says the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources performed a site inspection Tuesday.  Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on scene a day earlier.