**UPDATE 2/8/2014 10:30 a.m.**
As of Saturday morning, Duke Energy workers have installed a permanent plug at the end of the wastewater pipe. A company representative says the "concrete-like substance" is curing. To keep pressure off of the plug as it cures, wastewater is still being pumped from the pipe and back into the coal ash pond. Crews are still trying to reach the broken part of the pipe under the ash pond. When they do, they plan to fill the full length of the pipe with the same concrete-like material.
Workers have temporarily stopped the flow of ash and water into the Dan River on the border of North Carolina and Virginia, and plan to permanently patch the leak overnight.
Kevin Eichinger is the EPA’s on-site coordinator, the man in charge of the response to the broken pipe that, since Sunday, has poured tens of thousands of tons of ash from a Duke coal plant storage pond into the Dan River. Eichinger offered this good news Friday afternoon:
“There are current plans in place to install a permanent plug in the line. We hope to implement those plans and install that permanent plug after midnight tonight. That’s the current plan, it may change.”
In the meantime, crews have stopped the flow of water and ash out of the broken pipe. A Duke Energy team has set up pumps inside the ash pond, and where the pipe pours into the river.
“In effect we have two systems to remove water and prevent anything from entering that pipe, while they implement this permanent plug system,” says Eichinger.
The solution could include either crafting caps on either end of the pipe or injecting a sealing grout through it. Before making that decision, workers have to get to the pipe, though, which has taken longer than expected.
“The pipe is a little deeper than we had originally estimated,” says Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert. “So, we continue to pump intermittently around that worksite, so they can continue to work in safety and with good progress.”
On Monday, Duke estimated somewhere between 50 and 80,000 tons of ash had spilled into the Dan River, along with up to 27 million gallons of water. The utility has not updated that initial estimate, nor have any of the outside regulators checked its accuracy. Eichinger says another estimate will be conducted once the plug is sealed. Tom Reeder, who heads the state’s Division of Water Resources downplays the importance of that number.
“We’re not so concerned about the numbers, as we’re concerned about what the impact to the environment, regardless of how much got into the river,” Reeder says.
Once the broken pipe is plugged, the hodge-podge of state and federal offices, along with Duke, will determine a plan for cleaning up the river. Right now, state regulators, the EPA, Duke Energy, various environmental groups, Virginia officials, and Duke University are all taking water quality samples.
So far, those samples have generally fallen under federal standards, as has the drinking water in the downriver city of Danville. Measurements from environmental groups at the site of the spill, on the other hand, have shown elevated levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and selenium, which are the primary danger of coal ash. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been taking surveys of local species, especially fish. The agency has not noticed any problems, but visibility is poor.
“We’ve had field crews on the water, but they’ve not reported any sick or dead fish or wildlife at this point,” says Tom MacKenzie, spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The water has been extremely cloudy, so the observations are pretty much on the surface and on the banks.”
A team from the Army Corps of Engineers will also add to the mix of government agencies on-site. The Corps will consult on a plan to remove ash that has fallen to the bottom of the river.