A coal ash spill into the Dan River this week focused North Carolina’s attention on the issue of coal ash reservoirs, but unlined ponds have been leaching waste into the soil for years.
By Stephanie Soucheray
When a broken storm pipe caused the contents of a coal ash pond from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station to spill on Monday, not many of the environmentalists, lawyers and researchers who study these ponds were surprised.
For years, coal ash – the residue produced when coal is burned – has been a major problem in the Southeast because wet containers, like ponds, leach their contents into ground water and soil each year.
While it will take weeks, if not months, to begin to tease out the environmental-health impacts of the spill, the first reports from scientists and agencies are giving some pause, and others relief.
“This is a big disaster,” said Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices. Appalachian Voices is a nonprofit committed to limiting coal use in the Southeast while promoting clean energy.
Wasson was on site less than 36 hours after more than 80,000 tons of coal ash started spilling into the Dan River Sunday evening.
In a press release issued earlier this week, Duke Energy reported that 27 million gallons of contaminated water – enough to fill more than 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools – were released when corroded pipes burst in Eden.
On Tuesday, Appalachian Voices had team members in canoes near the spill site. Wasson reported they were pulling up six to 12 inches of coal ash sludge from buckets.
“The water is this ashen gray color,” he said. “Honestly, it’s shocking.”
Closed but still hazardous
Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station closed in 2012, but the contents of the coal ash pond had not been removed.
Most power plants are built along waterways because plants use large amounts of water and steam to run operations. Coal ash ponds became common features of these sites in the last 50 years, and it was only in 2010 that the EPA proposed regulating coal ash.
Like coal, coal ash contains numerous heavy metals, including lead, selenium and arsenic. When the ash is stored in dry and lined facilities, it is generally considered safe; but when contained in unlined ponds, like the Dan River site, the ash can seep into the ground, leaching toxins and chemicals.
Duke Energy has 14 such unlined ponds in North Carolina, and in August the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Southern Environmental Law Center brought suit against Duke Energy over these sites.
“The Dan River site, even before this catastrophe, was in violation of water-safety laws,” said Frank Holleman, lead SELC lawyer on the suit.
He said the spill is a dramatic example of what happens every day, albeit much more slowly, around coal ash ponds.
“The only thing protecting [us] from these ponds are earthen dykes that crack and leak and allow these heavy metals to seep into the ground,” said Holleman. “And the Dan River site was already doing that.”
Of the three major energy suppliers in North and South Carolina, Duke Energy is the only company that has not removed its coal ash ponds. “The solution is to move this coal ash into a lined, dry storage site,” said Holleman. “It’s simple.”
Though this is not the first coal ash spill in the state, Wasson estimated it is the largest, and among the largest in the country, behind 2008’s Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant and Wisconsin’s We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant, which dumped tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan in 2011.
“This comes down to faulty construction of these holding facilities for a really toxic substance,” Wasson said. “Someone once said coal ash contains most of the periodic table. It’s dangerous.”
But what that danger could be to human health is as yet unknown. Heavy metals, like selenium and arsenic, were found in a preliminary analysis by Avner Vengosh, a geochemist from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. But the levels were low and the water is still considered safe for human consumption.
“Right now, with this snapshot, we do not see contamination,” said Vengosh, who looked at samples taken by one of his students on Tuesday near the spill site.
Those results were echoed on Thursday by DENR’s analysis of the Dan.
For Vengosh, the main environmental health risk is that the heavy metals contained in coal ash will settle into the sediment at the bottom of the Dan, where they will enter the ecosystem and ultimately end up in a fish caught and consumed by humans.
Vengosh explained that heavy metals like selenium bio-magnify. That means they increase in species as they travel up the food chain. Selenium has been linked to reproductive problems in aquatic life, while lead and arsenic have long been known to pose human health threats.
“That’s what we saw at TVA,” said Vengosh, referring to the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee that released a billion tons of sludge when a coal ash pond collapsed.
The Dan River, which flows south to north, feeds Lake Gaston, a water source for many people between Danville and Virginia Beach. In order to prevent contamination, officials in Virginia have already shut down pumps from the Dan and assured Virginia citizens their drinking water would not be contaminated.
John Aulbach, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, said the city of Danville was collecting samples of the water, but that based on early analyses from Duke Energy, the water was clear.
“The Danville water-treatment plant has not restricted the use for the water supply,” he said.
Barry Dunkley, the division director of water for Danville Utilities, said it’s safe to drink the tap water. The site’s current water process and detergents have been producing clean water.
“We’ll keep running tests for heavy metals,” he said, adding that Duke Energy was being very cooperative with his office, conferencing over daily phone calls.
During a tour of the site late Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said he considered the accident to be “serious.” He also said he wanted Duke Energy to “spare no expense” to stop the spill and secure the coal ash pond.
McCrory worked at Duke Energy for 29 years before retiring in 2008.
Though initial worries about drinking-water safety have been tempered, many environmentalists said they are angry with Duke Energy for failing to clear out the coal ash ponds.
Meghan Musgrave, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said the company is committed to stopping the leak and accountable to the surrounding communities.
“Right now, we’re in talks with local state agencies and the EPA … to take care of the river,” she said.
As for a timeline for when the 13 other coal ash ponds will be cleaned, Musgrave said Duke Energy is “well under way” in its efforts to clean them up.