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Duke officials to Danville City Council: ‘We’re sorry’ / February 10, 2014
Danville Register & Bee
Reprinted with permission

Duke Energy officials met with members of Danville City Council and the public Friday to talk about the company’s response to the coal ash spill at the closed Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., that has polluted the Dan River.

Paul Newton, North Carolina state president for Duke Energy, said the spill has all but stopped because water has been removed from the site and hundreds of people are working to permanently seal off the pipe. At this point, he said, only a rain storm could cause the broken pipe responsible for the leak to have any water flowing again.

Newton began his talk Friday in a packed City Council chambers by apologizing for the spill, assuring listeners that the company is “working 24 hours a day to plug that leak” and is “committed to environmental remediation … committed to making it right.”

The company originally said the pipe that failed was 48-inch reinforced concrete (a map of the area handed out to media representatives on Tuesday also said it was concrete), but when they dug up enough of the pipe to send a camera in to find the break, it was learned that two-thirds of the pipe was corrugated metal connected to reinforced concrete pipes at each end.

Newton admitted that Duke Energy dropped the ball in keeping track of the pipe, no matter how old the site is.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Newton said. “We’re better than this.”

Vice Mayor Gary Miller said he was upset with how the situation was handled from the beginning, with the city not being given enough information during the first 24 hours to plan its own response to the break.

“We’re going to hold you accountable,” Miller said. “We are counting on you to fix the ecosystem.”

Newton fielded questions for more than an hour, answering concerns ranging from the affect the spill could have on fish and animals to requests for a timeline showing when the river would return to normal and how that would be accomplished, to providing a list of the chemicals and metals the company is testing for in the river.

Newton said a timeline isn’t possible yet because the company — with the Environmental Protection Agency, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and other North Carolina, Virginia and federal agencies — needs to assess the impact of the spill and work out a remediation plan.

Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, questioned how water samples are being collected and tested. Newton said Duke Energy is not the only group testing water — that various federal and state agencies, as well as Danville Utilities and various environmental groups, are all collecting samples independently to assure themselves that the treated drinking water in Danville and South Boston is safe to use (Eden, N.C., does not get its drinking water from the affected part of the river).

Waters tests have come back showing Danville’s treated water is safe, falling well within public drinking water requirements, but some private environmental groups are questioning whether enough testing for enough different possible contaminants are being made at enough places and depths of the river to give an full picture of potential problems.

Appalachian Voices on Friday said their raw water samples taken close to the spill site showed very high levels of arsenic, aluminum, iron, manganese and lead.

The group did, however, say tests done at the Danville water treatment plant seem to support the findings that the water is safe to drink.

“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,” Appalachian Voices said in a news release. “Also, there are numerous, potentially harmful pollutants that have not been tested for … Other contaminants that have turned up in the samples, such as boron, vanadium and molybdenum, do not have standards, which does not mean they won’t impact aquatic life or drinking water.”

Though this spill is small compared to the one in Tennessee in 2008 — Newton said the Eden spill is about 2 percent of the size of that ash spill — the company sees it as serious, Newton said.

“This is still a serious accident in our view,” Newton said. “It is a game-changer for our company with respect to how to manage an ash pond. … There are norms out there in the industry, but we are going to look at them differently as a result of this spill.”

Whatever the cost, the company is promising to fix environmental issues.

“We will make it right,” Newton said.

Thibodeau reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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