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Drinking water safe, but Va. Beach shuts off pipeline / February 12, 2014
Government officials continue to monitor the safety of drinking water up and down the Roanoke River basin more than a week after coal fly ash spilled into the Dan River at the site of the retired Duke Energy Steam Station in Eden, N.C.

Tests of drinking water supplies have shown no indications of significant contamination from the Feb. 2 spill, according to officials. Tests on raw river water drawn directly from the Dan have been less reassuring: according to the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, samples taken last week at the Eden spill site and near the City of Danville revealed levels of arsenic and other contaminants in violation of federal surface water standards.

A conservation group, Boone, N.C.-based Appalachian Voices, said its own test samples, confirmed by a certified independent North Carolina laboratory, revealed arsenic levels near the spill site that are ten times higher than the allowable federal limit. The group’s tests downstream in Danville also showed unsafe levels of arsenic, iron and aluminum in the river.

With Southside localities dependent on the Dan for their drinking water — and with the Dan feeding directly into Buggs Island Lake, which supplies local drinking water systems in Mecklenburg County — officials stressed that water treatment plants are fully capable of filtering out pollutants from the coal ash spill, including toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Only one locality has curbed its withdrawals from the river basin in the wake of the disaster — the City of Virginia Beach, which gets a share of its drinking water supplies from Lake Gaston. Virginia Beach, which has other sources to meet current demand, shut off the flow of water from the Lake Gaston pipeline on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Tom Leahy, Virginia Beach’s director of public utilities, said the city took action despite the extreme unlikelihood that contaminated water has reached Lake Gaston from upstream Kerr (Buggs Island). The coal ash plume made its way to the lake’s confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers on Tuesday, but has not had the same discoloration effects that it had on the Dan River, which turned noticeably gray over part of last week.

Leahy said that Virginia Beach expects most of the coal ash wastes to eventually settle in Kerr Reservoir, based on the city’s research on proposed uranium mining in upstream Pittsylvania County.

“Based upon modeling we did during the uranium debate,” said Leahy, Virginia Beach predicts that 90 percent of the contaminated silt would be trapped or diluted by the water and sediments of Buggs Island Lake. While that improves the quality of the water downstream, it could negatively impact the fish and wildlife in and around the lake.

Leahy described the pipeline shutdown as precautionary and not due to any imminent danger. He added that Virginia Beach has more than enough water in reserve to justify an abundance of caution.

““We weren’t pumping much from the lake right now because our reservoirs are full,” he said.

Leahy added it could take around 30 days for the coal wastes to turn up at Lake Gaston.

Concerns over water quality brought Chase City resident Sylvia Edmonds to Monday night’s meeting of Town Council, where she sought reassurances that the town was doing everything possible to guard against water contamination.

Chase City is the only community in the area that has an alternate water source available to its residents — its retired wells. Last year, Chase City transitioned away from the wells to a public water source supplied by Roanoke River Service Authority. As a precautionary measure the town never capped its existing wells. If, as a result of this spill or any other contamination of the lake, the water becomes undrinkable, Chase City can return to using its wells, explained Mayor Eddie Bratton.

As news of the spill reached the Roanoke River Service Authority, its director, Mark Smith, said the RRSA was monitoring the situation, but not altering their routines. The authority already takes water samples every two hours, and so far has seen no changes in the level of chemicals in the water supply. RRSA supplies water to customers in Chase City, South Hill and Boydton and outlying Brunswick and Mecklenburg areas.

Before the sludge reaches the dam and RRSA’s water intake site, Clarksville’s water system will need to address possible contamination concerns. Therefore, Clarksville water specialists started working with federal, state, and local agencies, early last week, monitoring the effects of the ash on systems upstream. Using that data, Town Manager Jeff Jones said, “Clarksville has a strategy for protecting the health and safety of the Town water supply.”

Jones promised residents that the town would “continue to monitor the situation and will be taking the necessary actions as the situation requires.”

Even before ash polluted the waters of the Dan, the Roanoke and Yadkin River basins were under a fish consumption advisory due to high levels of mercury and PCBs. Health officials warned against consuming more than two servings per month of fish caught in the waters of the Dan River, John H. Kerr Reservoir and Lake Gaston. That warning remained in effect said Rebecca LePrell, MPH, Environmental Epidemiology Division Director with the Virginia Department of Health.

Additional information on fish consumption advisories is available at

Both LePrell and Leahy agreed that the lake sediment already contained a certain amount of heavy metals, coming from years of mining and coal fired power plants. LePrell added that it is too early to estimate the long-term impact of the spill on lake fish or the vegetation in and around the area, especially to those fish that feed on microbes living in the sediment.

Decisions on how best to mitigate damages from the spill, if there are any, will be worked out with the US Army Corps of Engineers, who for now are taking a wait and see approach. “Since we are not the lead agency on this matter, we will take our direction from those in charge,” said Michael Womack, Wilmington District Operations Program Manager, USACE.

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Maybe southside Virginia could send a representative down to Virginia Beach to give them some pointers on cleaning that water so they can drink it too, since its safe.

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