BRUNSWICK COUNTY- There are no signs that toxic elements likely released by the thousands of tons of coal ash that spilled into the Dan River last month have made its way to a lake where Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake draw drinking water.
Lake Gaston, located roughly 100 miles west of Norfolk on the North Carolina/Virginia line, is downstream from the Dan River. Virginia Beach has a pumping station at Lake Gaston, which pumps water from the lake that is also used by the cities of Norfolk and Chesapeake.
The site of the massive coal ash spill--at a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant along the Dan River near Danville--is roughly 100 miles upstream of Lake Gaston.
The proximity was enough to pique the curiosity of Dr. Greg Cutter, a professor at Old Dominion University who specializes in testing water for trace metals.
Cutter's expertise and sophisticated lab equipment has been called on all over the world, including in the wake of the world's largest coal ash spill in Kingston, TN in 2008.
Although it's highly unlikely any coal ash will actually make its way to Lake Gaston, Cutter explained, there is a good chance that arsenic and selenium contained in the coal ash will mix in the water and flow down to the lake.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has limits in place for both elements in the drinking water to protect humans but, Cutter explained, both elements--especially selenium--can be more harmful to fish and other wildlife at the lake.
"It gets into the food chain: the plants will take it up, the fish eat the plants, etcetera," Cutter explained.
We traveled with Cutter last week to Pea Hill Creek, where Virginia Beach's pumping station is located, to collect samples of water to test.
Cutter collected the water from the bank of the creek by pumping water through a tube and filtered the water through a tube and into appropriate jars.
The water was tested at his lab the next day by Cutter and a graduate student.
Cutter's tests revealed average amounts of selenium in the water but elevated amounts of arsenic.
According to Cutter's research, the average level for arsenic in area waterways is .1 parts per billion. The water collected for our tests found .5 ppb of arsenic, five times the normal level but still 20 times below the EPA limit for safe drinking water of 10 ppb.
But officials with the City of Virginia Beach's Department of Public Utilities pushed back on the tests conducted by Cutter.
"What's in Lake Gaston is not considered drinking water, it hasn't been treated," said Peter Pommerenk, planning and analysis manager with the department. "Comparing that to a drinking water standard is kind of-- you're comparing apples and pears."
Pommerenk insisted any arsenic in the water in Lake Gaston would not make its way into the drinking water supply.
"You're already talking about half a part per billion, OK? That water is going to get diluted further as it goes to the Norfolk reservoirs and then to treatment," he said.
The City of Virginia Beach tests three locations--both near the intake site and two spots upstream--each day.
"So far, we have not seen any arsenic," Pommerenk said. "We had, I think, one part per billion in Clarksville but we've had nothing detectable above one part per billion."
Pommerenk also said the city stopped pumping water from Lake Gaston as soon as the spill was reported. He said the lake will not be used to pump any water until it's clear the toxic potential fallout from the coal as will not be an issue.
Cutter, the ODU professor, said the results of the water he tested show there are little to no risks for the hundreds of thousands in Hampton Roads who drink the water every day.
"I don't want to say we have nothing to worry about but, at least right now, there appears to be no impact from the ash spill," Cutter said. "It is elevated compared to other rivers and water bodies in the area but if we used the criteria of is it safe to drink? Yes, it is."