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Tough crowd asks tough questions on coal ash

EPA officials assured a standing room only crowd at the Washington-Coleman Community Center in South Boston on Thursday that drinking water from the Dan River was safe, while a Duke Energy representative told them customers would not be liable for cleanup costs associated with the spill.

Duke Energy representative Jeff Brooks said the cost of cleanup would be borne by Duke’s insurers and shareholders, not its customers.

“That (cleanup costs) will come from our insurance and our shareholders,” Brooks said during the briefing. “Customers will not pay for the costs associated with this response.”

A 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath an unlined 27-acre coal ash pond retired in 2012 by Duke Energy broke Feb. 2, spilling coal ash into the Dan River.

Duke Energy is working to fill the 48-inch line with concrete and abandon it in place.

During its response to that incident, EPA also investigated a 36-inch line that went underneath the same pond and had it analyzed, according to EPA representative Kevin Eichenger.

Eichinger, Patricia “Trish” Taylor and Stephanie Wenning, members of an EPA response team who have been coordinating, supervising and recording efforts regarding the spill since it happened, conducted the briefing. 

“We tested the affluent, which showed elevated levels of arsenic,” said Eichenger.

“The Department of Natural Resources immediately told Duke Energy to stop that release, and temporary measures were installed to collect that affluent. Permanent measures are being implemented to plug that up.” 

The 36-inch line had been on EPA’s radar, Eichinger admitted.

EPA emergency response personnel and other regulatory agency and health officials took tough questions from residents who live throughout the Dan River basin wanting assurances that their drinking water was safe from elevated levels of contaminants such as mercury, selenium and arsenic.

Wenning, an on-scene coordinator and engineer for the EPA, assured the standing room only crowd that drinking water is safe.

“We’ve updated the sampling of surface and drinking water locations since the incident,” said Wenning, adding the drinking water samples are within federal and state water quality standards.

“Arsenic has not been detected in any of our drinking water samples,” Wenning explained further.

Many in attendance posed questions to which they felt they received unsatisfactory answers, particularly when asking how long the cleanup would take and who would be responsible for paying for it.

Many questioned how the spill could occur in the first place citing earlier coal ash spills in states such as Tennessee and suggested Duke Energy and EPA knew what could happen but did not take adequate measures to prevent it.

Eichinger responded to concerns the cleanup is not proceeding as quickly as it should, explaining the recent snowfall had delayed the process.

“This is not the first coal ash spill that’s occurred in the Southeast,” Eichinger said, recalling one at a TVA site in Tennessee of much larger magnitude in 2008.

Millions of tons of coal ash entered the Clinch, Emory and Tennessee Rivers after that spill, compared to between 30,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash in the Eden incident, he said.

Everything learned there has been put to use here, he added, further explaining every spill is different as is the response.

“We have fish and wildlife  (personnel) on the river looking at other locations where ash normally accumulates so we can know where to go and look.”

Removing the ash may involve dredging, using a small shovel or even installing a passive system in the river to collect the ash, so they can remove it, Eichinger explained.

“Our goal is to get as much of the ash out of the river as quickly as we can,” he added. “But, keep in mind working in the river, we can’t go in there and re-suspend previous contamination. We know at Danville there’s PCBs and mercury in the river already unrelated to this release.”

To get a small amount of ash and stir up the PCBs and mercury would create a larger problem than they currently face, Eichenger cautioned, resulting in further damage to the ecosystem and its effect on wildlife and recreation.

EPA and a number of state agencies in Virginia and North Carolina continue to take water and fish samples in determining the potential impact of the spill, Eichinger added.

John Aulbach II, director for the office of drinking water for the Virginia Department of Health, said his department was continuing to review test results of raw water taken from the Dan River.

“We’re continuing to review results of the raw water in the Dan River, the untreated water, and those have trended back to background levels indicating no metals or very low amounts of metals there of concern for us in the water treatment industry,” said Aulbach.

“I also know factually the Town of South Boston water plant that’s run by the Halifax County Service Authority has the best available technology, it is more or less state of the art. It has the best available technology to remove the kinds of metals we’re talking about. I have every assurance and belief it will continue to do so.”

Daniel L. Richardson, environmental health manager for the Pittsylvania-Danville-Southside Health Districts, responded to a question regarding possible contamination of well water relying on aquifers connected to the Dan River, saying the soil acts as medium to filter the coal ash.

“Water in aquifers typically move slow in the order of inches or feet per month, so I would not expect you to have this in your well water,” said Richardson. “If you want it checked, you can go to a private tester already certified by the state and have it checked for whatever you want it checked for, probably mercury, selenium and arsenic.”

And what’s to keep other accidents from happening at Duke Energy’s other retired ash basins?

Duke Energy has a team in place already whose sole responsibility is examining all its ash basins, with an objective of closing all that are currently retired, according to Brooks.

“The closure of this plant and ash basin was already in progress when this occurred, so what were doing now is taking a step back and finding out what the best decision is for that ash basin,” said Brooks. “We completely hear the urgency, and there’s nothing I can say to make it more sincere.”

The process of closing the ash pits has to be done with input from EPA and other agencies, he emphasized.

“I recognize it won’t be fast enough, but it is something we’re doing,” said Brooks. “I think Duke has been retiring a significant number of its older plants already, this is one of our smaller plants, and it’s being retired along with several others. We’ll look at each site and determine the best solution. That will be part of the discussion.”

Regulations regarding coal ash as a hazardous or non-hazardous material, and the methods of storing coal ash are currently being considered by the EPA, Eichinger said.

He anticipates EPA to issue a regulation on coal ash storage in December.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with all the coal ash ponds,” he added. “There are discussions going on concerning regulation of coal ash ponds. In December, EPA will issue a regulation, and we’ll know then.”