The Environmental Protection Agency announced it has struck an agreement with Duke Energy to clean up coal ash from the Dan River. The EPA has been overseeing the company’s response, since a storage pond failed at a Duke coal plant in February, spilling at least 30,000 tons of the waste into the river. But the agreement binds Duke to clean up ash as the EPA directs and to reimburse the agency for its costs. EPA officials say that comes to about $800,000 for the past three-plus months of clean-up.
In that time, only a fraction of the ash has been removed from the river, and it is unclear how much more clean-up the EPA will require.
It took about a month for Duke Energy to begin vacuuming a 300 cubic yard deposit of coal ash, which had collected near the site of the spill. But documents included in the EPA’s agreement with Duke show only 22 cubic yards were removed—less than 10 percent of the total.
Another two months passed before the company began dredging the next deposit further down the river—3,000 cubic yards in Danville, Virginia, set to be finished in July. EPA on-scene coordinator Ken Rhame is overseeing the clean-up and he explained some of the challenges.
“You tell Duke to go get it. By the time they get access, by the time they set up, and do the construction work for the staging area, by the time they construct a water treatment system like they have in Danville now, it takes weeks if not a month,” he says. “You don’t want to spend all the time and effort getting set up to remove the ash, and by the time you get set up, the ash has already moved beyond that point.”
Heavy rain and snow have also caused high water, creating unsafe conditions and causing delays, according to Rhame.
The EPA has only one other site slated for dredging—a sand bar with about 40 cubic yards of ash. That would leave the vast majority of the 30,000 ton spill in the river. Rhame says in some cases, it’s safer that way.
“Once you find it, you evaluate based on the concentrations or the thickness of the ash, whether or not you’re going to be causing more damage by mechanically removing the ash.”
Rhame says the University of Mississippi is developing a model of how the ash is moving through the river, and where it’s collecting. He says once that’s completed later this year, it’ll help determine how much more ash—if any—Duke will remove.
In the meantime, Rhame says various federal and state agencies and Duke have been testing soil, water, and fish for contamination from the ash, which can include arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. While initial tests showed spikes above federal standards, it has returned to safe levels. Still, the state environment agency advises the public to avoid eating the river’s fish or making contact with the water.