North Carolina coal ash spill continues; Duke Energy promises clean up

Company official says they are doing all they can; leak has slowed, but toxic metals still flow into Dan River

Demonstrators chant and hold signs behind a display of coal ash and the chemicals in it during a protest near Duke Energy's headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 over Duke Energy's coal plants.
Chuck Burton/AP

The power company responsible for a North Carolina coal ash spill that has continued to leak arsenic and mercury-laced coal waste into a river used for drinking water pledged Friday to clean up the mess and apologized to communities affected by the crisis.  

It’s not clear yet how the power company plans to fix the problem, or if it plans to remove the coal ash pond, amid charges by environmental activists that the river’s levels of arsenic are now far too high in the spill's aftermath.

Just a few miles downstream from where the power plant, shut in 2012, spilled 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina lies the regional hub of Danville, Va. It was in that town of 43,000 where Duke Energy representatives met with city council members and the public Friday to describe the ongoing spill and what the company was doing about it.

Duke Energy official Paul Newton talked about what the spill, which he said has now slowed to a trickle from the flood that happened days before.

“We apologize. We apologize for the accident that happened at our Dan River site,” Newton said. “We are working 24 hours a day to permanently plug that leak.”

In addition to plugging the leak, Newton said Duke intends to clean up the river.

“Whatever it may be, you have our complete one hundred percent commitment to make it right. We take full responsibility.”

Toxic chemicals

The coal plant came online in the late 1940s, Newton said, describing how a storm water pipe that ran below the coal ash pond broke, letting ash flow into the Dan. Most of the pipe is made of the corrugated metal.

Critics say the plant operator did not notify the public about the Sunday’s spill until Monday, and Newtown addressed those charges.

“I’ve heard that Danville wished it got more precise information early,” he said, before adding that his company did the best it could after finding out the spill had started Sunday at 2 p.m. “It was as accurate as we knew."

“We believe we complied with required notifications. I think there’s going to be lessons learned for all of us for rapid notifications,” he said.

The leak has proved a vexing challenge for Duke officials, who have thus far failed to end the leak with the use of an inflatable bladder stuffed into the river. Newton said the company has tried three times.

“As much as we wanted it to stop yesterday, life’s not that simple,” Newton said.

The Duke representative told city officials that special materials which are not immediately available are needed to plug the leak. The problem requires a unique engineering solution.

“You can’t just run out there and cap the end and think you’ve got it solved.”

Right now, Duke’s plan is to plug both the break in the storm water pipe itself and plug the end of the pipe that runs into the river, damming the area of the coal ash pond around the pipe with stone to let engineers work on the pipe itself and keep the water that fills the pond off the breach in the plug.

“So then when we get those bladders in there, those plugs in there, then I would say, I feel like and I’m not an engineer, but very stable at that point. Much more stable and that’s going to happen in the very near term. I can’t give you an exact time as to when those plugs will be on either side of the break, but it’s going to happen sooner rather than later” Newton said.

“If it takes years we’re there for years.”

In response to questions from the public, Newton emphasized that Duke’s tests say drinking water is completely safe for consumption. Danville has also tested the city’s drinking water and determined it’s safe.

"It is safe before and after the filtration system," Newton said, according to the Lynchburg News Advance, adding that levels of pollutants were exceeded state standards for water quality.  "It tasted great. I'm not concerned about the drinking water in Danville, Virginia."

But Appalachian Voices, an environmental group, said its evaulation of the river itself raises significant concerns.

“The arsenic level at the spill site was 95.1 parts per billion, 9.5 times the recommended drinking water standard. Downstream samples also exceeded the federal recommended drinking water or freshwater standards for aluminum, iron, manganese and lead,” the group said in a statement.

The plant is 20 miles downstream from the Danville's water intake. 

Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices’ water quality specialist fears that what he says was a 24 hour gap in notification of the public by Duke has put people in danger, calling it “one of the most disturbing aspects” of what happened at the Dan River site.

“We will never know what the acute exposure of these harmful chemicals was when they were likely at their most toxic levels.”

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