Corralling coal ash

Feb. 18, 2014 @ 05:33 PM

It has been nearly three weeks since coal ash from an old retaining pond at a Duke Energy power plant begin flowing into the adjacent Dan River through a broken stormwater pipe underneath the pond.

Despite assurances from Duke and the N. C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources that water supplies downstream from the spill were safe and that there no excessive levels of toxic metals in the river, critics are far from sure.

“Initial water quality testing performed by DENR staff on site at Duke Energy’s Dan River power plant on Tuesday, Feb. 4, showed no deviation from normal levels of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity due to the release of water and ash from the facility’s coal ash impoundment,” the department said shortly after the accident. And in a legislative hearing Monday, regulatory officials repeated their belief that there were no significant safety risks.

The state division of public health, however, has issued two health advisories for the Dan River near the spill. The division last Wednesday recommended avoiding contact with water and sediment from the river downstream from the spill site. It warned that contact with “submerged or floating coal ash, or ash washed up on the riverbank … may cause skin irritation.”

And at Monday’s hearing, Tom Reeder, the state’s director of water quality, conceded that while some levels that spiked in the immediate aftermath had receded, it may be too late for some aquatic creatures.

“If you’re a mollusk and covered with ash then, yeah, you’re gonna die,” Reeder said.

While debate continues over the extent and details of the damage, what is clear is that the state faces a substantial risk from similar coal-ash ponds that have been subject to light regulation.  Indeed, environmental groups had sued Duke Energy over groundwater contamination leeching from its coal-ash dumps.

DENR had intervened, under its regulatory authority, to negotiate a settlement that fined the energy company $99,111 – an almost laughably meager ding to the $50 billion corporation. That settlement has, not surprisingly, been put on hold in the wake of the Dan River spill.

The two ponds that prompted the suit had been retired, but were still permitted to contain a dizzying array of chemicals. The list, notes the website of the environmental group Catawba Riverkeepers, includes “ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, flue gas emission control residuals, water treatment, boiler blow down, boiler chemical cleaning wastes, coal pile runoff, storm water runoff, fire protection, mill rejects, floor and laboratory drains, and drains from equipment cleaning”

Four years ago, the website notes, the U. S. Environmental Protection Association listed both ponds as “‘high hazard’ -- with a potential for loss of life and economic catastrophe if they failed.

The ponds have been an accident waiting to happen. Now that one has it is time for the state to require Duke to clean and close them sooner rather than later.  We cannot tolerate such vulnerable, toxic dumps, especially near vital water supplies.