Massive leak of toxic coal ash flows into North Carolina river

A massive leak of toxic coal ash from a retired North Carolina power plant into a neighboring river decreased on Thursday, utility officials said, but hundreds of workers had yet to seal the breach in a drainage pipe where the leak was detected more than four days ago.
State regulators promised a detailed inquiry into the accident once the area was stabilized and the Dan River’s water was shown to be safe. But environmental and citizens’ groups criticized the response, saying the leak was the result of decades of lax oversight.
From 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal-ash slurry flowed into the Dan after the collapse of a corrugated metal drainpipe only a few feet beneath a 27-acre pond, known as an impoundment. Duke Energy, the utility that owns the impoundment and the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., which closed in 2012, says that 27 million gallons of contaminated water also leaked into the river. Coal ash, a murky gray sludge that is the residue from burning powdered coal to generate electricity, contains high levels of toxic elements, including lead, mercury, selenium and arsenic.
The state said it began testing the Dan’s waters on Tuesday for the presence of 28 toxic metals. A spokesman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Jamie Kritzer, said Thursday that the first results would be available by Friday.
The department said that five downstream communities that take drinking water from the river were monitoring and filtering the water and had deemed it safe.
In Danville, Va., a town of 43,000, “we’ve done some testing, and it’s been verified that there is none of the heavy metals coming downstream” in the treated water, David Stiles, the chemist for the Danville Water Treatment Plant, said in an interview. The river was opaque with ash on Monday, the day after the spill was detected, he said, but the latest measurements indicated that the ash content was less than a quarter of its recent peak.
Officials in Virginia Beach closed a drinking-water intake at Lake Gaston, a reservoir fed by the Dan, The Associated Press reported.
The Dan River Basin Association, a regional conservation group, said the leak’s impact on wildlife remained unclear. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service sent experts to help assess the damage to fish stocks that live in the river, including the endangered Roanoke logperch.
The Dan River spill is but the most recent in a string of problems in coal-ash ponds in North Carolina and nationally. But it is a particular embarrassment to state regulators and to Duke, both of which have come under attack for what critics call lackadaisical oversight of ash ponds at all 14 power plants where Duke burns or once burned coal.
The company agreed in November to spend at least $1.5 million to install public water lines in Flemington, N.C., after tests showed that arsenic and other chemicals from a coal-ash pond had leaked into groundwater. Last March, a clutch of environmental groups threatened to sue Duke for coal-ash chemical leaks that they said had polluted Mountain Island Lake, which supplies drinking water to Charlotte.

State regulators have since filed lawsuits against Duke accusing it of allowing coal-ash leaks at Mountain Island Lake and its 13 other plants. But they came only after environmental groups served notice that they would be filing suits under the Clean Water Act unless the state compelled the utility to comply with the law.
The groups have since argued in court that the state’s settlement of two lawsuits was inadequate because it required only that Duke study the leaks further, not stop them. They are seeking to intervene in other actions against Duke that have yet to be settled.
North Carolina has all but ignored mounting problems at coal-ash basins for years, said Peter Harrison, a staff lawyer for Waterkeeper Alliance.
State discharge permits for such facilities are “extremely lax, in many cases expired, and they completely ignore the issue of leaking contamination from coal-ash impoundments,” Mr. Harrison said. “It wasn’t until citizen groups put the spotlight on the problem that the state undertook enforcement action.”
Mr. Kritzer, the state resources department spokesman, disagreed, saying that Gov. Pat McCrory was the first to take action on the ash basins.
The Environmental Protection Agency stated in 2012 that 45 ash storage sites nationwide had a “high hazard potential,”  meaning that failure could cause loss of life.

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