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Drinking water safe; potential threat posed to aquatic life

While a recent coal ash spill in the Dan River may not impact the drinking water for county residents, many are questioning how the spill will impact aquatic life.

And uranium mining opponents are touting the spill as “a prime example” of how easily uranium tailings could accidently be released into the environment if the ban is lifted on uranium mining.

“It shows again what can and will happen when you mine uranium,” Halifax Vice Mayor and “We The People Chairman” Jack Dunavant said. 

“You can clean this stuff up,” he said referring to the coal ash, “but you can’t clean up uranium.”

According to Bill Hayden of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public affairs department, it is uncertain whether Sunday’s collapse of a pipe at the Duke Energy Steam Station in Eden, N.C. that leaked contents of an ash pond into the Dan River will impact aquatic life.

Hayden said the ash has been moving pretty swiftly and has not settled at the bottom of the river. However, if the ash settles, it poses a threat to aquatic creatures that live at the bottom of the river. 

Hayden said at this point he could not tell if or when the ash would settle at the bottom of the river. 

He also noted the DEQ is unsure if the fish will be impacted if the ash settles. It is all a question of whether the chemicals from the ash will get into the fish or not.

According to Halifax County Service Authority Executive Director Mark Estes, the spill has caused the Dan River in South Boston to have a gray hue.

 The discoloration reached Halifax County’s portion of the river Tuesday afternoon, but it had “lightened up” by the time it reached this area with a lower concentration than in the neighboring City of Danville. 

The authority director said discoloration is expected to dissipate today.

Estes noted the Leigh Street water filter plant intake is on the Dan River and is downstream of the discharge. 

“We have been in constant contact with the Danville VDH Office of Water Programs, USEPA, Department of Environmental Quality, the City of Danville and Duke Energy,” Estes said. “Danville has been able to treat the water without any health issues or concerns. Given the distance from Danville and the additional tributary flows from streams and the recent rain event, we should expect little or no impact on our treatment process at the plant,” he said.

 According to Danville Utilities, the first test results of the treated water samples confirmed that the water leaving the city’s treatment facility meets public health standards. 

The test results came from two finished  water samples collected by Duke Energy at the city’s two reservoirs, Danville, Utilities Division Director of Water and Wastewater Treatment for Danville Barry Dunkley said.

 Estes said Duke Energy and USEPA have conducted tests for metals, and the physical characteristics of the water and all parameters are well within USEPA guidelines. 

“We are coordinating our own sampling series with Duke Energy and USEPA to assure the levels are within the maximum contaminant level goals set by USEPA,” Estes said.

The authority is working on removing the discoloration from the water, and the treatment they are implementing meets the standard of the Virginia Health Department. 

“We should have no trouble removing the color from the water. The ash has very similar characteristics to activated carbon in which we often use to control taste and odor in our finished water and is filtered out very easily,” he said. “Our filter plant operates 16 hours each day and will be able to discontinue withdrawing water from Dan River allowing much of the water to pass our intake without any issues,” Estes said. 

“We will continue to sample and monitor the raw water as the ash moves to be sure that the water is safe to drink. We want to ensure our customers that the water is safe to drink and that we will do whatever we need to do to ensure that water quality is maintained. It is an unfortunate event, however, our staff often removes color from the raw river water in the spring and fall of each year as leaves and storm water run-off influence the Dan River.”

 According to Estes, since the incident, Duke Energy has tried to drain the pond to prevent more ash from leaking. 

“We are exploring multiple options to permanently and safely seal the broken storm water pipe that has released ash into the river. Flow to the river significantly decreased throughout the day Tuesday. It fluctuated a bit earlier today but has been very low this afternoon,” said Charles Gates, senior vice president of the generating fleet at Duke Energy on Wednesday.

According to Duke Energy, crews were successful in uncovering the break in the pipe Tuesday evening. They also learned the break occurred in a section of pipe made of corrugated metal. The corrugated pipe connects to a reinforced concrete pipe closer to the river. This information helps design the permanent solution.

“Knowing the pipe material is important in deciding next steps for filling the pipe to eliminate flow to the river,” Gates said. “Our focus remains on public and site safety.”

Agencies further downstream also are taking necessary precautions since the spill including Virginia Beach officials.

According to Tom Leahy with Virginia Beach Department of Public Utilities, city officials have halted all pumping at the Virginia Beach Lake Gaston intake station until more information becomes available that the  city  water supply and quality have not been  compromised.

The Dan River is located upstream from the Kerr Reservoir and Lake Gaston.  Lake Gaston, along with several Norfolk–owned reservoirs provides public water for the cities of Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

“Because of the time that would be necessary for the contaminated water to travel down the Dan River, to Kerr Reservoir, then to Lake Gaston, and finally up into Pea Hill Creek, there is no conceivable way that anything released in the last few days or few weeks could have reached the Gaston intake” Leahy said.

Leahy further indicated that water supply intakes on the Dan River and the headwaters of Kerr Reservoir are the immediate focus of attention. These intakes supply neighboring areas in the vicinity of the river and reservoir, not Virginia Beach, he said.

The city is coordinating with Norfolk, Chesapeake, the Virginia Department of Health, North Carolina and the Corps of Engineers that owns and operates Kerr Reservoir.

 The spill also prompted a response from Cale Jaffe, Virginia office director for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“At this point we know that Duke Energy is estimating that 50,000-82,000 tons of coal ash have been discharged into the river, in addition to over 24 million gallons of polluted basin water. Duke reports that there has been periodic mitigation, but the spill is ongoing,” he said. “As EPA, DENR Officials and Duke work to control the spill and assess its damages, this is a painful reminder of the importance of safeguarding Danville’s drinking water sources. There is no reason any utility should continue to store toxic coal ash on the banks of our rivers and lakes.”

According Jaffe, The Southern Environmental Law Center has taken legal action against Duke Energy to try to force the cleanup of its coal ash pollution at 14 sites across North Carolina including the Dan River site. This prompted the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to file a series of enforcement actions against Duke, at a time when utilities in neighboring states have voluntarily removed coal ash from storage ponds near waterways. 

According to DENR’s enforcement action, the coal ash has polluted the groundwater at the Dan River site for years, exceeding standards for toxic substances including arsenic, boron, and sulfate.

“We are continuing to monitor with great concern the ongoing coal ash spill into the Dan River, particularly given the plant’s location upstream of the drinking water supply for Danville,” Jaffe said.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents several conservation groups in court to seek cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution at sites across North Carolina, said, “Unfortunately, today’s spill of Duke’s coal ash into the Dan River is the latest alarm bell that Duke Energy needs to change its primitive way of storing coal ash in unlined pits next to our rivers and lakes. It’s the latest spill in a string of spills and leaks into waterways, including drinking water reservoirs and upstream from drinking water intakes, and groundwater… Storing large amounts of coal-related toxic substances in outdated earthen pits beside rivers and lakes is a recipe for repeated disasters and pollution.”

Duke Energy officials are scheduled to meet with Danville City Council and city staff at 1 p.m. today in council chambers to provide a review and update regarding the coal ash spill into the Dan River.