Water test results are starting to come in from the part of the Dan River affected by a coal ash spill at a retired Duke Energy plant on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. WFAE’s Duncan McFadyen reports early results are in.
Scientists descended on the Dan River this week to collect water samples. Teams from Duke Energy, The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Duke University, the EPA, and various environmental groups are all testing the water for heavy metals known to be in coal ash. So far, we’ve seen data from Duke Energy, Duke University, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, an advocacy group.
Duke Energy released numbers late Wednesday that show levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, selenium, and lead, are under federal water quality standards. Thursday, Duke University professor Avner Vengosh said his results are similar. And, that’s good news he says.
“So it seems that we were really lucky this time that this effluent from the spill did not have major changes in the water quality,” he says.
How can that be, when up to 80,000 tons of ash have traveled from the ash pond into the river? Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert says that’s because most of the heavy metals are tied up in ash particles, which settle to the bottom or are filtered out by normal water treatment.
“What we’re finding is that sample results confirm that downstream water supplies are safe," she says, "and that the water can be treated by routine water treatment processes.”
But, the coal ash that’s settling to the river bed could release more of the chemicals into the water, says Vengosh, especially in hot weather, when warmer surface water sucks the oxygen out of the cooler water below.
“As a result, some of the metals that otherwise are contained by suspended matter are being released into the ambient environment," he explains.
On the other hand, the Waterkeeper Alliance released test results Thursday showing elevated levels of heavy metals. The environmental group tested water right underneath the spill. Duke Energy’s closest site was 2 miles down river.
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins says the heavy metals in coal ash are a danger to the ecosystem, as they will build up in plants and fish. He says at Sutton Lake near Wilmington, selenium from a coal ash pond has caused problems in the fish population:
He says, “the fish have curved spines, deformities that are really pretty shocking to see…deformed faces, jaws…”
Meanwhile, Duke says it’s crew is continuing to work to stem the flow. The company has installed pumps that are keeping water away from the broken pipe, and it says workers continue to build a road in the pond to create easier access to the pipe.