Dan River coal ash leak sparks environmental concerns

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by Nick Ochsner, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on February 7, 2014 at 8:52 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 12 at 7:16 AM

UPDATE 2/11: Dominion spokesman Dan Genest tells 13News Now that the Chesapeake Energy Center currently contains approximately 40,000 tons of coal ash.

The upper pond at the Chesterfield plant currently has eight million tons of coal ash in it and is being converted into dry storage. Most of that pond has already been capped and seeded.

Genest says the lower pond currently contains approximately 895,000 tons of coal ash. The figures used in our original story are the capacities for each of the ponds, not the amount of coal ash in the ponds.

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NORFOLK -- As workers continue to try to plug a leaking pipe that is pouring tens-of-thousands of tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, environmentalists are already starting to think about the spill's long term consequences.

While Duke Energy--the company that owns the leaking coal ash pond--and state leaders including North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory have offered optimism at the steadily falling levels of toxins in the river, experts say it's not time to cheer just yet.

“The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “We continue to monitor the situation and are especially concerned about the deposition of coal ash residuals in the sediments underlying the Dan River and how that could affect the long-term health of the river.”

That coal ash residue is readily apparent to environmentalists like Pete Harrison who works for the non-profit Waterkeeper Alliance.

In a Skype interview from along the banks of the Dan River on Friday, Harrison described the clumps of coal ash continuing to flow downstream.

"What I've observed myself [is] very thick coal ash sedimentation on the bottom of the river, on the banks of the river," Harrison said.

Harrison said his observations are a stark contrast to the optimism at the improving situation shown by Duke Energy and McCrory.

"We really need to know more about what the dangers are," he said. "We still don't even know how much coal ash was dumped into the river from this plant."

Harrison's colleague at the Waterkeeper Alliance, Donna Lisenby, said the spill poses a more long-term danger for Hampton Roads, where the cities of Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach uses a lake that is supplied by the Dan River to draw drinking water.

Lisenby said that until steps are taken to start cleaning the spilled coal ash from the river, clumps of the toxic substance will sink to the bottom of the river and flow to the lake. Those clumps, Lisenby said, could settle in the lake and continue to release toxins for years to come.

On Friday, Harrison put the danger those toxins pose in perspective.

"It basically has up to a quarter of the periodic table in it, which includes things arsenic, cobalt, cadmium, mercury, chromium, lead and the list goes on and on," Harrison said."

The Dan River spill is the third worst spill in history. Environmentalists say they hope the incident will prompt increase scrutiny and regulation from the federal government, which does not currently regulate coal ash ponds.

Harrison, with the Waterkeeper Alliance, analogized coal ash ponds to a pile of mashed potatoes holding in a pool of gravy.

"When it fails it's an absolute disaster," he said.

Stark pictures like those could be alarming to residents who live near those plants or rely on water downstream from a coal ash pond.

In Hampton Roads, there are four plants environmental advocates have their eye on, including the Chesapeake Energy Center.

That power plant, which is owned by Dominion Energy, sits along the southern branch of the Elizabeth River.

After a 2010 inspection, the US Environmental Protection Agency rated the coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center as being in poor condition.

The pond holds more than 25 million gallons of the toxic substance.

In a statement late Friday, Dan Genest, a spokesman for Dominion, pushed back on the ranking.

The pond is in  good shape and is inspected daily by station employees, quarterly an in-depth inspection is done and once a year we hire a certified engineering firm to do a complete assessment.

In the wake of the TVA Kingston accident,  in 2009 Dominion conducted a thorough inspections of all its ash facilities, including the pond at Chesapeake Energy Center. Dominion immediately started making improvements to its ash pond at Chesapeake. The inspections revealed the problems cited by EPA in  its 2010 inspection of Chesapeake. In fact, we were in the process of completing those repairs when EPA made its visit. Despite the fact that all issues raised by EPA were resolved well before they issued their report in 2011, EPA rejected our appeal to upgrade the status of the Chesapeake pond.

Genest added that the plant is scheduled to be shuttered by the end of 2014 and the coal ash pond will be de-watered, capped and seeded.

Another Dominion-owned plant sits on the James River, upstream from Hampton Roads in Chesterfield.

That plant has two coal ash ponds which, combined, hold more than 3.5 billion gallons of coal ash.

An EPA assessment of the Chesterfield plant's two coal ash ponds found those to be satisfactory.

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