North Carolina coal-ash spill trickles into Virginia

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli
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A pipe from which coal ash spilled is seen along
the Dan River. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Communities affected by a February coal-ash spill in North Carolina have been assured that their drinking water is safe, but questions still remain.

On Feb. 2, a stormwater pipe beneath an ash basin broke at the closed Dan River power plant in Eden, N.C. The break caused one of the largest coal-ash spills in U.S. history (up to 39,000 tons, according to Duke Energy, the Charlotte, N.C.-company that owns the plant).

“We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river,” Paul Newton, Duke Energy president, North Carolina, said in a statement five days after the incident. “We will do the right thing for the river and surrounding communities. We are accountable.”

Danville has the closest water treatment plant to the coal ash spill (it is 20 miles downstream), says City Manager Joe King. Although the city can assure residents that their drinking water is safe, Danville officials are relying on federal and state regulators and Duke Energy to keep them informed about the overall health of the river. “The Dan River is extremely important to us, and we take very seriously the challenge of assessing the damage of the coal-ash spill and making sure that it gets addressed, and we are going to be actively involved in that process,” King says.

The Halifax County Service Authority also has filtered its drinking water (which also comes from the Dan River) so it’s safe for consumption, says South Boston’s Town Manager Ted Daniel. He says the town expects federal and regulatory agencies to continue monitoring the river so that a similar event does not happen. The Halifax County Water Authority also should be reimbursed for costs associated with the spill, he says. In an email to Virginia Business, Duke Energy spokeswoman Lisa M. Hoffmann said the company will not ask customers to pay for costs associated with the incident. 

The Gazette-Virginian re­­ported that the spill cost the Halifax County Service Authority $10,000 as of the end of February, a number expected to increase as more bills come in.

King says Danville worries that the event could have a negative effect on the way outsiders view the city, no matter if fears about the spill are real or perceived.

“We are concerned it might have a detrimental effect on our community’s image and our ability to recruit industry and business here,” King says.

On Feb. 25, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and NCDENR Secretary John Skvarla wrote a letter to the company saying it had to come up with a plan by March 15 for what it planned to do with its coal-ash ponds.

In response, Duke Energy said it planned to move three leaky coal ash pits away from the state’s waterways, including the one associated with the spill, according to The Associated Press. It also said it would take at least two years to clean up the Dan River site and sites near Asheville and Charlotte. Skvarla said Duke Energy’s response was inadequate and the department was moving forward to derive the necessary information.

The federal government has launched an investigation into the coal ash spill and served Duke and NCDENR  with subpoenas.

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