MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Spill spews tons of coal ash into North Carolina river

Published by MAC on 2014-02-11
Source: CNN, Associated Press, (2014-02-10)

Following on a large coal slurry leak in Canada (see: Canadian First Nations, NGOs demand full disclosure and government action on Sherritt's toxic coal spill), coal ash from a Duke Energy power station has spilled into the Dan River, affecting in North Carolina and Virginia.

In neighbouring West Virginia, the impacts of a January chemical spill into the local rivers from a coal-cleaning chemical plant, have been described by a spokesperson fot the US National Science Foundation as: "One of the largest human-made disasters in this century"

Spill spews tons of coal ash into North Carolina river

By Catherine E. Shoichet

CNN

9 February 2014

The coal ash poured out of a broken pipe into the Dan River, turning water into dark muck.

It took nearly a week to stem the spill, which sent millions of gallons of sludge from a retired power plant into a river that supplies drinking water to communities in North Carolina and neighboring Virginia.

Workers stopped the spill by plugging the broken pipe with concrete this weekend. Now government scientists and the United States' largest electric utility face a daunting task: cleaning it up.

Tests since the spill have turned up higher levels of harmful chemicals such as arsenic in the river. But so far, officials say tap water is safe to drink.

Some environmental activists in the area say they aren't so sure. They fear the consequences for wildlife and say that the situation shows state regulators haven't done enough to crack down on Duke Energy.

The utility has apologized for the spill and vowed to clean up any damage.

"We're committed to the Dan River and the communities that it serves," Charlie Gates, the company's senior vice president of power generation operations, said in a statement Saturday. "We are accountable for what has happened and have plenty of work ahead of us."

Concerns over drinking water, wildlife

Duke Energy announced last week that it found the leak in a 48-inch stormwater pipe at the retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina, on February 2.

On Saturday, six days later, the company said it had plugged the broken pipe that was causing the spill and was working with officials on developing a cleanup plan.

Coal ash, the material that remains after burning coal for electricity, contains metals such as arsenic, selenium and cadmium.

Tests of the river last week revealed levels of copper, aluminum, iron and arsenic above state standards for surface water, state environmental officials said.

It's unclear what that could mean for wildlife in the area, said Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"It's certainly cause for concern for the long-term impacts of this coal ash spill on the health of the Dan River," he said.

Environmental advocates warn that the damage could be significant, potentially harming fish in the river and impacting the food chain.

"You have a cleanup effort that is going to be difficult," said Sam Perkins, who works for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to protecting waterways in the area. "This shows even a small spill has an impact on the ecosystem."

Some activists accuse authorities of deliberately playing down the danger of the situation and taking too long to notify the public.

"This is another shameless attempt by (environmental officials) to downplay the risks facing the communities along the Dan River downstream," Peter Harrison of the Waterkeeper Alliance advocacy group said in a written statement to CNN on Friday.

"Are we supposed to feel good that there are only four hazardous toxins, including a carcinogen, in our drinking water supply?"

Samples taken by the Waterkeeper Alliance last week contained "extremely high levels of arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals," the group said in a statement.

State environmental officials said Sunday that arsenic levels appeared to be decreasing, but recommended avoiding prolonged direct contact with the river in the area of the spill until further notice.

Unclear how long cleanup will take

Kritzer said authorities have been open about what they've found.

"We're not downplaying risks. We're doing our objective analysis of what we're seeing so far, and I think we are concerned," he said. "The Dan River is a gem, and people value it throughout the state for not only being a source of drinking water, but also for its aquatic life that it provides a home to and all the recreational uses. This is certainly something that concerns all of us."

Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, first learned about the spill from a mail carrier, who warned that the river's water had turned black. The situation is heartbreaking, she said.

"I stood on the bank a day or two after the spill, and I can say that I openly cried," she said. "I was thinking, 'How can this ever heal? How can this ever be cleaned up? And what is this going to do to what I would consider one of the most beautiful parts of our country?'"

Now, she said, cleanup is key.

"The longer it's allowed to sit there ... the sediment that has not gone down the river will be constantly churned up as it goes downstream, and the longer that we wait, obviously the more damage can occur," she said.

The North Carolina spill comes weeks after a chemical spill in West Virginia left 300,000 people unable to use their water supply for days. Now, a federal grand jury is looking into that spill in what one official called a criminal investigation.

In North Carolina, authorities will investigate the coal ash spill to determine what violations occurred, Kritzer said.

State and federal agencies are working with Duke Energy to figure out the next steps for cleanup, he said. At this point, it's unclear how long that could take.

Authorities were still working to develop a cleanup plan Sunday, Duke Energy spokeswoman Lisa Parrish said.

"Simultaneous efforts have been under way to not only plug the pipe and cap the system, which we successfully achieved last night, but also to test water quality. We've been testing water quality since the leak occurred and will continue to do so," she said. "Water quality tests will inform our cleanup efforts and accelerate our planning for the best long-term solution at the site."

Even before last week's spill, coal ash contamination was a concern for North Carolina officials. The state filed lawsuits against Duke Energy last year, asking the court to order the utility to deal with groundwater and wastewater violations at 14 sites where the byproducts of coal power plants are stored, according to a statement from Gov. Pat McCrory's office.

Parrish said Sunday that the utility is in the midst of plans to close the sites where it stores coal ash in North Carolina.

"Ash basin closure planning is already well under way for the ash basins located in North Carolina, including the one at Dan River," Parrish said. "We look forward to moving ahead with that project."

Governor has close ties with company

Before he ran for governor, McCrory worked for Duke Energy for nearly three decades, and critics have claimed he's shied away from regulation during his time in public office due to his close ties with the utility.

In a statement last week, McCrory said his administration was the first in the state's history to take legal action against the utility over the ponds.

"We have been moving on this issue since the beginning of my term and will continue to do so," he said.

Environmental advocates say the spill is a reminder of a troubling problem that's widespread in the state: coal ash ponds storing large amounts of waste close to drinking water supplies.

The spill raises questions, the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation advocacy group said in an online post.

Key among them -- what chemicals are scientists testing for, was drinking water contaminated and will the utility change its coal ash disposal approach as a result?

According to figures released by Duke Energy, last week's spill appears to be similar to, but smaller than, a 2008 coal ash spill at a power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, which sent 1.1 billion gallons of sludge into the adjacent Emory River.

State authorities slapped the Tennessee Valley Authority with $11.5 million fines after that spill, which authorities said violated state clean-water and solid waste disposal laws.

In statements announcing the North Carolina spill last week, Duke Energy said up to 82,000 tons of ash had been released and up to 27 million gallons of basin water had flooded into the river. That amount of ash, the company said, would fill up to 32 Olympic-size swimming pools.


NC river turns to gray sludge after coal ash spill

Associated Press

6 February 2014

ON THE DAN RIVER, N.C. - Canoe guide Brian Williams dipped his paddle downstream from where thousands of tons of coal ash has been spewing for days into the Dan River, turning the wooden blade flat to bring up a lump of gray sludge.

On the riverbank, hundreds of workers at a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre pond where the toxic ash was stored.

Since the leak was first discovered by a security guard Sunday afternoon, Duke estimates up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water has spilled into the river. Officials at the nation's largest electricity provider say they cannot provide a timetable for when the leak will be fully contained, though the flow has lessened significantly as the pond has emptied.

An Associated Press reporter canoed downstream of the spill at the Dan River Steam Station and saw gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.

Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.

"How do you clean this up?" he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his paddle. "Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can't clean this up. It's going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected."

Environmental regulators in North Carolina say they are still awaiting test results to determine if there is any hazard to people or wildlife. Coal ash is known to contain a witch's brew of toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium.

Twenty miles downstream from the spill site and across the state line in Danville, Va., worried fishermen watched ash swirl in the water. A woman dipped her hand into the water and it came out coated slate gray.

Municipal officials in Danville say they are successfully filtering out contaminates in the drinking water for the city of about 43,000 people.

Meanwhile, officials in Virginia Beach, Va., announced they had stopped drawing water from Lake Gaston, a major reservoir fed by the Dan.

Personnel from Duke Energy and an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, traveled the river in motorboats Wednesday, collecting water and sediment samples. A command center has been set up at the power company's facility in Eden.

An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to questions Wednesday, including when the test results on the samples collected by the agency would be made public.

Environmentalists and government regulators have been warning for years that the 31 ash ponds at Duke's power plants in North Carolina had the potential for calamity, especially after a similar pond in Kingston, Tenn., burst open in 2008.

"Even without a spill, these settling ponds have been releasing continuous contamination into the rivers downstream from coal-fired power plants," said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry at Duke University, which was named for the same family that founded the power company.

Duke Energy officials have always insisted the ponds at its facilities were well-engineered and safe. At the Dan River plant, the waste pond was expanded more than 40 years ago over an older storm water drainage pipe. That pipe, which empties into the river, collapsed without warning sometime last weekend, draining the pond above.

Duke has closed 14 of its oldest coal-burning power plants in recent years as more-stringent air quality regulations went into effect and the price of cleaner-burning natural gas has dropped. Though the coal-fired turbines at the Dan River facility were shut down in 2012 and replaced with an adjacent gas-burning plant, the company currently has no firm plans for when and how to clean up the remaining ash ponds.

"We are committed to closing the ash basins at many of our retired coal plants across North Carolina," the company said in a statement Wednesday. "Duke Energy customers continue to benefit from more affordable rates because coal remains part of our diverse fuel mix."

Danny and Elsie Crews sat in their truck at a riverside park in Danville, watching the ashy water flow by. Danny, 60, said he helped build the new gas turbines at the Duke plant in Eden before giving up construction work due to health problems.

The couple likes to fish for big blue catfish and striped bass that make an annual migration up the Dan each spring from the Pamlico Sound.

They said they will still fish this year, but don't plan to eat what they catch.

"We're gonna eat what we have in the freezer now," said Elsie, 71, casting a wary eye at the gray water.


West Virginia's water nightmare closes schools

Environmental News Service (ENS)

7 February 2014

"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century..." - William Cooper, National Science Foundation.

CHARLESTON, West Virginia - Crude MCHM, one of two chemicals that leaked into West Virginia's Elk River last month, was detected in the water supply of George Washington High School this morning, according to Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials, weeks after the water was declared safe to use.

But Nassandra Wright, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's head sanitarian, said the school's results are below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation of one-part-per-million. George Washington is the latest of more than a dozen Charleston schools to be affected by water contaminated by the January 9 spill of the coal-cleaning chemical from a Freedom Industries tank, just upstream from the West Virginia American Water utility, which supplies drinking water to Charleston.

About 10,000 gallons of MCHM, which has a licorice-like odor, spilled into the Elk River. The chemical entered about 1,700 miles of pipe along the river, according to local officials. Information on its toxicity and health effects is scarce.

A Do Not Use the water order issued January 9 affected more than 300,000 residents in nine counties, but after 10 days the water was declared safe to drink. Still, reports of water contamination keep flowing in to state officials.

George Washington was one of five schools whose water tested positive for low levels of Crude MCHM in tests conducted by the West Virginia National Guard, even after the system was flushed in late January. Water systems at the five schools were re-flushed and re-tested; the levels of Crude MCHM then fell below both the federal recommendation and the stricter state standard.

But this morning the tell-tale licorice odor was back, and students and staff reported symptoms that included burning eyes, light-headedness and headaches.

Three schools in Charleston closed early Thursday after chemical odors were detected in their tap water. Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the county received complaints from a total of 14 schools.

On Wednesday federal officials again declared the water to be safe. "You can drink it. You can bathe in it," said Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "You can use it how you like."

The assurance came in a joint federal-state agency news conference called to provide a detailed update regarding the Elk River chemical spill. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Republican, told reporters at the event, "Like you and all of the 300,000 West Virginians I am frustrated and angry. I share your concerns about the water crisis, as does my team here in West Virginia, the national experts we have depended upon for guidance and the federal partners who are standing with me today."

"This event is most important a public health issue AND it is also an environmental and economic development issue," said Tomblin, who declared a State of Emergency after the spill. "I am committed to creating and retaining good West Virginia jobs. We must do this and have clean water and a healthy environment. It is not an either or proposition."

But even Governor Tomblin is not 100 percent convinced that the water is safe to drink. He has told residents that the decision of whether or not to use the water is a personal, individual matter.

After he made that announcement, news broke that crude MCHM can break down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones told reporters this week, "There is no answer as to when the citizens of this valley and all these nine counties can affect this nightmare to end. And it has devastated this area in a way which is indescribable. Everything is closing."

"And that means the Marriott Hotel. That means our Town Center Mall. No restaurant is allowed to open because you can't legally open without water. And it's been devastating for our area. People are in their homes. The schools are closed. You're not supposed to take showers and certainly not supposed to drink the tap water," said Jones.

A federal grand jury has started a criminal investigation into the chemical spill in West Virginia, looking into the activities of Freedom Industries and the West Virginia American Water Company.

On January 30, the National Science Foundation awarded $150,000 in Rapid Response Research grants to teams at three universities to investigate the spill.

"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything," said William Cooper, program director in NSF's division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems, which funded the research grants.

"RAPID grants give researchers the support they need to be on the ground and to collect data immediately."

Andrew Whelton of the University of South Alabama will examine the chemical's absorption into and removal from plastic drinking water pipes, focusing mainly on houses. "One of the concerns in this spill is authorities have little to no information about exactly what this chemical does to drinking water plumbing systems," said Whelton. "Chemicals tend to absorb more into plastic pipes than metal pipes. Plastic pipes can act as a sponge, sucking up chemicals."

Water towers and storage tanks can be lined with polymer materials, including epoxy linings. These linings may absorb organic chemicals and then release them to later contaminate the water, he said.

Jennifer Weidhaas of West Virginia University will assess the extent of the contamination in drinking water, the treatment plant and areas near the river.

Andrea Dietrich of Virginia Tech will study the physical and chemical behavior of MCHM itself in the environment, which will add data necessary to model the environmental fate of the chemical.

Together, the three studies present a systems approach that the National Science Foundation says will provide a better understanding of how MCHM behaves in water systems.

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