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A disaster that Duke, regulators didn’t see
SoVaNow.com / February 10, 2014A week after a Duke Energy holding pond failed on the banks of the Dan River and touched off the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history, the question remains: How did the design flaw behind the disaster go unaddressed — and mostly unnoticed — by company officials and government regulators?
On Friday and Saturday, Duke Energy, owners of the retired Dan River Steam Station where the accident occurred, announced it had successfully plugged a broken storm water pipe that funneled coal wastes into the river. The pipe, made of reinforced concrete and corrugated metal, broke sometime on Sunday, Feb. 2. On Saturday, Duke completed efforts to halt the leak by inserting a concrete-and-rubber stopper, then sealing the pipe with 27 feet of concrete reaching to the river’s edge.
According to Duke, the 48-inch storm water pipe was part of the original design of the Dan River Steam Station, built in 1949. (The plant was decommissioned in 2012 and replaced by a modern combined cycle coal-and-gas generator.) The failed pipe is one of two drains that run underneath the station’s 27-acre coal ash holding pond. In the first days after the disaster, Duke said the pipe was made of reinforced concrete; subsequent video taken as work was underway to stop the spill showed that a section of the pipe was corrugated metal. It was there that the break occurred.
In on-site inspections conducted in 2009 and 2006, federal and state regulators paid little notice to the existence of the drainage pipes, records show. Instead, the inspections turned up seemingly minor problems with the earthen dam that holds back coal ash from the Dan — violations that included the growth of vegetation on the embankment and the presence of burrowing animals.
The oversight proved to be fateful: Once the pipe broke last Sunday, a sinkhole opened on the surface of the holding pond and an estimated 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of slurry water flushed through the gap into the river. The ash plume turned the Dan a gray hue all the way from Eden to the outskirts of Buggs Island Lake.
With municipalities on the Dan reporting no ill effects on drinking water, environmental and wildlife agency officials increasingly focused this week on the river habitat and the potential for long-term damage from coal wastes — including toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, which have linked to species die-offs and human maladies such as cancer and birth defects.
Clouding the picture were differing contamination assessments that emerged late in the week. On Thursday, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported only one unusual reading from its water sampling of the Dan, for high levels of copper. Late Friday, however, after further analysis for other heavy metals and a review of prior data, the department updated its findings to note high downstream concentrations of arsenic, copper, aluminum and iron, in violation of safe water surface standards.
“The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health,” said Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, in a statement posted on DENR’s website Thursday. “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.”
An environmental organization, Appalachian Voices, said this weekend its own test samples of the Dan — independently analyzed by a certified North Carolina laboratory — showed even higher contamination levels than what has been reported by DENR and Duke Energy. The Boone, N.C.-based group found arsenic readings near the spill site that were 10 times higher than the allowable federal limit. Samples taken 23 miles downstream at the City of Danville water intake showed lesser, but still troublesome, concentrations of arsenic, iron and aluminum.
The group said it ran its tests on unfiltered “grab samples” that contain suspended fly ash particles, in contrast to the filtered samples tested by DENR.
“The testing results so far indicate that downstream drinking water supplies are safe, but there are likely to be major ecological impacts from this spill,” the group said in a statement Saturday.
While environmental advocates generally concur that drinking water supplies from the Dan are safe, they have been withering in their criticism of Duke Energy and, in some cases, the regulators who were supposed to keep watch over the company.
“This is a crowd of grossly incompetent management [at Duke] that did not have any idea of what was going on at their site, and people downriver are suffering the consequences,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has joined other conservation groups in suing Duke Energy to clean up 14 coal plant ash ponds that are no longer in use, including at Eden. “There was no special situation. This was simply a failure of Duke.
“We’ve been saying there were 14 disasters waiting to happen. Now we have 13 disasters that are waiting to happen and one that has happened,” he said.
Duke currently operates 31 coal ash ponds in North Carolina, including two that overlook waterways that flow into Halifax County. The SELC is pressing regulators to crack down on storage ponds at the Mayo Plant, on U.S. 501 near the Virginia-North Carolina state line in Person County, and at the massive Roxboro Steam Plant, located in Semora, N.C., one of the largest power facilities in the U.S. The Mayo plant is sited next to Mayo Lake; the Roxboro plant abuts Hyco Lake.
Holleman said the SELC wants Duke to close both sites and move the wastes to lined landfills a safe distance from any waterway. None of Duke’s ash containment ponds are secured by below-ground liners, he said; even before the Dan River disaster, SELC had documented groundwater and surface water seepages at Duke’s plants, including at Mayo and Roxboro.
“They’re just pits in the ground filled with coal ash wastes,” said Holleman of the Duke holding ponds. “It’s the kind of storage you’d expect in the most backward Third World country.”
Despite SELC’s success in finding Duke in violation of clean water laws, Holleman said, the state of North Carolina has been slow to press the utility to clean up its act: “The regulators by and large have been apologists for Duke’s illegal activity, and they’ve never took action until we sent notices to them under the Clean Water Act that we would take action if they didn’t.
“Duke’s best friends,” Holleman said of the North Carolina state regulators.
Officials at DENR, along with their counterparts at other regulatory agencies in North Carolina and Virginia, say they are focused in the aftermath of the disaster on protecting the Dan for use by the public, and as wildlife habitat.
While early alarm among officials over the safety of drinking water has largely dimmed, the government continues to warn people to limit their exposure to the Dan, and to avoid eating fish caught from the river.
The past week also has given rise to questions of who will pay for the costs of the spill — including the additional manpower and chemical supply costs borne by water plant operators as they took extra steps to protect public drinking supplies.
For its part, Duke says it will develop a long-term remediation plan in conjunction with regulatory agencies, including North Carolina’s DENR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re committed to the Dan River and the communities that it serves,” said Charlie Gates, senior vice president, Duke Energy Power Generation Operations. “We are accountable for what has happened and have plenty of work ahead of us.”
One question that lies ahead is whether it will prove feasible to dredge portions of the Dan to remove coal ash that could poison the river’s food chain. Susan Massengale, a spokesperson for DENR, said Friday that the agency had begun conversations on what can be done to mitigate the impacts of the spill on aquatic and human health along the Dan, but that it is too soon to tell if dredging will be a good option.
“Right now we’re very focused on what’s happening at the plant itself,” said Massengale on Friday, prior to Duke’s announcement that it had capped the spill, but “we’re talking with fish and wildlife [officials] and they’re helping us evaluate [the best course to protect] aquatic and water habitat creatures.”
Dredging the Dan “would be considered in context of which activity would be more beneficial for the environment” — removing the ash wastes, or allowing them to settle under a cover of mud.
“That has yet to be evaluated,” she said.
Long before the Dan River disaster, DENR had come under fire for taking a soft enforcement approach with Duke. In particular, environmentalists criticize the agency for quashing citizen lawsuits against Duke as it asserted its own enforcement powers in coal ash disputes. After closed negotiations with Duke, the state has proposed settlements that would impose modest fines on the utility without requiring it to actually clean up the containment ponds in question.
The groups’ skepticism has only escalated with the 2013 inauguration of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked 28 years for Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility.
Yet the risks with the Dan River Steam Station go back years, with little acknowledgement among state or federal regulators that the drain pipes beneath the holding ponds could make the facility vulnerable to catastrophe. SELC’s Holleman said the Dan River plant is one of only two Duke sites with such a design feature; the other is in Indiana.
“Duke was ignorant of, which is very disturbing, or brushed over serious issues with those storm drains. Those storm drains were a conduit to the river,” he said.
Massengale, the DENR spokesperson, said the pipes in question drained water from a low-lying vegetated area and as such they were never part of the power station’s stormwater plan. Thus the pipes were not subject to department permitting requirements.
“Because there was no regulatory requirement for [runoff from a vegetated area], it may not have shown up” when the DENR and the EPA assessed the risks to the Dan, said Massengale. She added: “When this plant was built in 1950s, there wasn’t nearly the regulatory impact that we have now … I’ll bet you’d have a different design if it was built today. I would guess that would come under very tough scrutiny.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated this storm water pipe would collapse,” she said.
A 2009 inspection study of the plant, prepared by a private consulting firm for EPA, made only passing mention of the drainage pipes. The lead engineer who prepared the report, Grady Atkins with the Columbia, S.C. office of Paul C. Rizzo Associates, declined comment this week on its report’s findings, citing the likelihood of future litigation.
On hand for the inspection were officials with DENR and EPA. Attempts on Friday to contact Stephen Hoffman, the lead EPA official named on the report, were unsuccessful.
On Sunday, a Danville spokesperson announced that EPA officials will travel to the city on Tuesday to field questions about the coal spill from the public. While he is highly critical of DENR, Holleman said EPA “to its credit” took the lead in forcing inspections at coal ash pits.
On Friday, Duke Energy pledged to go forward with plans to either seal off or remove ash wastes at eight retired North Carolina plants, including at Eden. The utility is pondering two alternatives — a “cap and seal” option that would involve draining off water and encasing the leftover waste in a thick liner, covered by an earthen layer, or carting off the ash wastes for storage in a lined landfill. Environmental groups have called on the company to take the latter route, arguing that the cap-and-seal approach is unreliable.
SELC’s Holleman said that no one should accept Duke’s assurances at face value, given the company’s history of water quality violations, nor accept any alternative that leaves the ash wastes lying by the Dan.
Other utilities in the South have moved coal consumption wastes away from the water, but Duke has been stubborn in its refusal to do so, he said.
“You can run a perfect system, but when you’re dealing with toxic substances there are going to be mistakes … You just don’t want to put them on top of major waterways, particularly when they’re separated by primitive earthen dikes,” he said.
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