State lawmakers got their first official chance to review this month’s coal ash spill, which poured at least 30,000 tons of the toxic byproduct of burnt coal into the Dan River. Monday’s meeting of the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission revealed more about the spill response than the company or regulators had previously disclosed, including a fortuitous construction accident that helped stem the leak.
Duke Energy’s environmental liaison George Everett recapped for the committee how the utility discovered a pipe had burst in a pond that stores coal ash.
“A security guard who does routine inspections around the plant noted that this pond was getting lower,” he explained.
Environmental groups and some lawmakers have criticized Duke for taking too long to notify state regulators, and state regulators for taking too long to notify the public. Everett went through the timeline of when Duke contacted the state’s environmental emergency hotline that evening.
“By 6:40 we reported the discharge to the on-call personnel,” he said.
State Division of Water Resources head Tom Reeder later revealed that the Department of Environment and Natural Resource, or DENR, did not learn about that call, or the spill, until 9:00 a.m. the next day.
“That call was not relayed to DENR, so we did not find out about it until Monday morning,” said Reeder.
Reeder says the staff of the emergency hotline failed to call the pager number of a DENR staffer who is on-call for weekend emergencies. Reeder told lawmakers he did not know what went wrong.
“From my perspective, I’ve been too busy trying to respond to the spill itself to worry about anything like that,” said Reeder.
Officials also went into further detail about efforts to plug the leaking pipe. The week after the rupture, federal and state regulators deferred questions about that effort to Duke. And for about four days Duke spokesmen would only say crews continued to build a stable road through the uncertain footing of the pond to get to the pipe. And, they said the amount of water and ash leaking into the river continued to slow.
Reeder explained to the committee why that road took so long to build, and what helped stem the leak. The two were related.
“They [crews] brought in a lot of rock and were trying to create this earthen platform. Well, what happened is that collapsed,” said Reeder. “But that was actually kind of a good thing, because all of that material went into the pipe, and it basically plugged the pipe. So from this point on, from this point on Wednesday on, there’s hardly any discharge left occurring.”
Duke successfully finished the road Friday and sealed the pipe shut overnight with a cement grout. Since then, state regulators have detected faults and leaks in a second storm water pipe underneath the pond and have demanded Duke come up with a plan to patch it by February 24. Reeder say tests of the water quality continue to return to levels within federal standards, but ash that has sunk to the bottom of the river is a long-term problem.
“If you’re some sort of a mobile species like a mollusk or a snail or a plant or something like that, and you’re buried under coal ash, you’re going to die,” Reeder told the committee.” I mean that’s the big problem with this coal ash spill.”
As for the meeting, lawmakers ended without consensus. Some discussed passing new laws to force Duke to remove ash ponds, while others thanked Duke and state regulators for their work in the clean-up.
Reeder said the agency is just beginning to determine damages Duke will owe because of the spill. Meanwhile, the justice department has initiated a criminal investigation.
Skvarla responds to criticism
At that same meeting, DENR secretary John Skvarla responded to accusations that his department has blocked environmental organizations from suing Duke over similar coal ash ponds around the state. THey contend water from coal ash ponds at all 14 Duke coal plants are seeping into, and polluting, nearby waterways. The state initiated its own lawsuits against Duke just within a 60-day Clean Water Act deadline, which prevented planned suits from environmental groups. Skvarla says his team sued soon after taking office, and not in response to those groups.
"You think you do that overnight? You think you just snap your fingers and put 14 actions together overnight?" Skvarla asked. "We were scrambling to make the deadline, but we did it, because our job is to protect the environment and the citizens of North Carolina."
Skvarla’s agency had agreed to a settlement on the first of those lawsuits, which required a small fine and over a year of study by the utility. Regulators have asked a judge to put that settlement on hold, in light of the Dan River spill.