North Carolina coal ash spills ‘permanently plugged,’ officials say

News comes as federal prosecutors continue probe into possible felony violations at North Carolina’s 14 coal ash sites

Jenny Edwards, program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, scoops coal ash from the banks of the river on Feb. 5, 2014.
Gerry Broome/AP Images

Duke Energy Corp., a North Carolina-based energy company, successfully halted a second leak at its decommissioned power plant in Eden that was found to be threatening a river already tainted by toxic sludge weeks earlier, state environmental regulators told Al Jazeera Friday.

After discovering the leak on Tuesday, the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNER) ordered Duke Energy to plug a 36-inch pipe that was allowing coal ash and slurry — the waste product of burning coal — to spill into the Dan River.

The first leak, which was plugged on Feb. 8, occurred when a 48-inch pipe at the same plant broke under a 27-acre coal ash pond, spilling thousands of tons of the pollutant into the river.

DNER told Al Jazeera that Duke Energy packed the second pipe with 40 feet of concrete at about 2:30 a.m. on Friday.

“Basically the pipe is plugged, as far as we’re concerned right now,” said Thomas Reed, director of DNER’s Department of Water resources.

Duke Energy spokesman Dave Scanzoni confirmed Reed’s statement. Temporary containment measures had already contained 95 percent of the spill, Reed said. Now both leaks are "permanently plugged."

Duke Energy staff reportedly emailed Reed Friday to say they “will let (the plug) cure for 72 hours, (before they) will move forward with grouting the (entire) pipe,” Reed said.  

DNER has come under fire for its handling of the state's coal ash ponds, which it concedes are contaminating groundwater as well as harming aquatic life. It filed suit against Duke last year, and then proposed a settlement, which is opposed by environmental groups.

DNER Secretary John Skvarla earlier this week told Reuters the proposed settlement, which has been on hold since the spill, would prevent delays in cleanup that may be caused by a prolonged trial.

Federal prosecutors issued a second set of subpoenas to DNER on Tuesday as part of a widening probe into possible felony violations at North Carolina's 14 coal ash sites.

Prosecutors are investigating whether a crime was committed in the first spill, in which Duke said 30,000 to 39,000 tons of ash were released into the river.

“We’re looking at each one of these (coal ash) sites on an individual basis, and will do what’s necessary” to protect the environment, Reed said.

The coal-fired plant in Eden was built in the 1940s and retired in 2012.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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