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Get the ASH out

South Boston News
Kevin Eichinger, with microphone, the EPA on-scene coordinator for the coal ash spill at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., addresses questions from audience members at a town hall meeting Thursday at the Washington-Coleman Community Center. (David Conner II photos)
SoVaNow.com / February 21, 2014



Acrowd of some 200 people pressed members of the U.S. Environmental Agency to explain what comes next for the Dan River in the wake of the Feb. 2 coal ash spill that has fouled a 70-mile stretch of water from Eden, N.C. to Kerr Lake.

EPA representatives, joined by a phalanx of officials from the Virginia health department, Virginia and North Carolina environmental quality agencies, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sought to reassure the public about the disaster at a town hall-style meeting Thursday night in South Boston.

Yet the focus of presenters — on the emergency response by EPA and other agencies in the weeks after the spill, and the uncertain impact on the Dan in the months and years to come — wasn’t entirely in sync with a question that audience members raised repeatedly:

What do EPA and others plan to do to ensure that similar disasters don’t happen in the future?

The answer, said Kevin Eichinger, EPA’s on-scene coordinator for the disaster response on the Dan, will depend on how the federal government decides to regulate coal ash wastes in the future.

The agency is expected to issue new rules for the storage and disposal of coal ash by the end of the year. Currently, coal ash wastes are not regulated as hazardous material. A decision on whether to change that rule has been on hold while the agency studies the issue.

“Why is it taking EPA so long to label toxic coal ash as a toxic material?” asked Eichinger rhetorically of the audience.

“I ask that question myself. I don’t know why.”

Amid official assurances that drinking water is safe and public health has not been compromised, Eichinger acknowledged that communities along the river such as South Boston have good reason to be concerned about the impacts of the spill.

The EPA’s role at the moment, he said, is managing the emergency response to the release of an estimated 39,000 tons of fly ash into the Dan at the Dan River Steam Station, a retired coal-fired plant owned by Duke Energy in Eden, N.C.

(Duke Energy, which has furnished the estimates of the spill’s size, initially said up to 82,000 tons of coal ash flowed into the Dan from an ash pond breach by the river. Eichinger said it’s possible that the spill’s size remains closer to the upper end of Duke’s estimates.)

The EPA currently is concerned about one issue in particular — the continued seepage of wastes through one of the two stormwater drainage pipes that run underneath the retired coal plant’s 27-acre watery ash pit. It was the collapse of the larger of the two lines, a 48-inch concrete-and-corrugated metal pipe more than half a century old, that caused the crisis in the first place — cleaving the surface of the pit and allowing spent fly ash and slurry water to escape through the pipe into the river.

Under orders by EPA and North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Duke has been working this week to form a concrete plug in the leaky 36-inch line, which Eichinger said “was on our radar” after the first pipe failure.

“It turns out it was [a problem] and we’ve addressed that,” said Eichinger.

Eichinger said at the start of Thursday night’s meeting that he planned to depart afterwards for Eden in time to check on the utility’s progress stabilizing the line — likely a vain hope, as the scheduled hour-and-a-half session lasted to around 10 p.m., two hours later than planned.

(North Carolina officials reported on Friday that the second drain pipe was successfully plugged.)

Eichinger and other officials ran through a wide assortment of concerns voiced by the often-skeptical crowd. Agency officials took pains to assure residents that drinking water supplies are safe and raw river water and riverbed sediments are being constantly tested. Sampling in the aftermath of the spill has mostly turned up results that fall within federal safe water guidelines.

Also discussed at length at the meeting: steps that agencies and Duke Emergy will take to remove coal ash from the river. Earlier this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement noting thick deposits of coal ash in the river from Eden to Danville, with lesser concentrations downstream in South Boston and traces of ash in Kerr Lake.

Cleanup could include the use of vacuum trucks, “it may be a small-scale dredger of some sort, it may be shovels,” said Eichinger of the options that EPA will consider. “We have multiple technologies to use in play.

“Our goal is to get contaminants out of the river as quickly as we can” — without, he added, stirring up existing contaminants in the Dan such as industrial PCBs.

Then “we’ve created a worse problem,” he said.

Agency representatives stressed that it will take time to get a fuller sense of the damage to the Dan, and until such time, they will remain on the ground, working with river communities to develop a response.

“It’s going to take us time,” said Craig Giggleman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I can’t stand here and say, ‘Oh, it’s the end of the world’ or ‘It’s all okay.’ We’ve got to assess it.

“You’re going to see us here for a long time,” he said.

Joining agency officials at the public meeting was a representative from another partner in the response effort — Duke Energy itself. Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for the company, found himself on the receiving end of some of the night’s most pointed questions and accusations.

The civil but restive audience made plain its unhappiness with Duke, with one speaker accusing the utility of “reckless endangerment” of South Boston and other communities along the Dan.

“We’re not a bunch of country rednecks who don’t know what’s going on,” said Nick DeCarmen, a South Boston native who recently moved back to town and lives nearby the water treatment plant on the river.

“I think I’d investigate. I wouldn’t want for this disaster to endanger the public. I think that’s what everybody is so upset about.”

Brooks said Duke is committed to setting matters straight after the spill — including by shouldering the costs of the cleanup and closing the waste ash pond at the Dan River Steam Station where the disaster occurred.

“Our goal is to be supportive of the community as we work through this process,” said Brooks. “What that support will entail, I can’t say right now.”

Brooks noted that Duke, the nation’s largest utility, is currently debating the best way to close the Dan River waste ash pit, which continues to hold more than 1 million tons of material, far surpassing the amount that escaped with this month’s spill. Duke is considering two approaches — sealing the pit with a waterproof liner and burying it underneath a layer of earth, or trucking out the wastes and placing them in a federally regulated, lined landfill well away from sources of water.

Audience members left no doubt that they want to see the coal ashes — which contain such heavy metals as arsenic, selenium, and mercury — gone from the site.

“I don’t know what idiot thought to put a pond of poison next to the river,” said Alan Wolfe of Clarksville, who called the continued presence of the ash pit “a time bomb just waiting to go off.”

Eichinger said that amid the flurry of activity to respond to the disaster, he and other staff were passing along such concerns from the public to higher-ups within the EPA. He expressed open sympathy with audience members’ desire to to see the ashes removed, but said the decision was outside the scope of his job as a first responder.

“I’m not the policymaker, I’m the emergency response coordinator. If I were sitting in your seat, I’d ask the same questions,” he said.

The presentation of data and assurances of water safety did little to settle the fears of numerous speakers, including one woman who wanted to know if her well water was at risk of contamination. Duke’s Brooks said the utility would pay for testing of wells at homes and farms nearby the river, but the speaker’s location — 10 miles away — puts her firmly outside the guidelines of what Duke has said it will pay for.

“We shouldn’t have to pay for it, because Lord knows we don’t have it,” said one speaker softly.

The issue of who pays cropped up repeatedly throughout the meeting, notably in response to Brooks’ assertion that Duke shareholders and its insurance carriers — not utility ratepayers — will bear the expense of the cleanup. That prompted one listener to pull up a news report on her cell phone in which a George Everett, Duke’s director of environment and legislative affairs, was quoted telling North Carolina lawmakers, “When costs do come into play, when we’ve had a chance to determine what those costs are, it’s usually our customers who pay our costs of operation.”

Brooks, seeking to resolve the apparent contradiction, said Everett was referring to the long-term task of removing coal ash pits from Duke sites. Brooks said he was referring to Duke’s commitment to pay for the immediate costs of the emergency.

“That will come from our insurance and our shareholders. Our ratepayers will not pay for this response,” he said.

In the wake of the spill, Duke has said it will close ash pits at decommissioned plants next to waterways — a move that environmental groups accuse Duke of having resisted for too long, with the tacit support of North Carolina regulators who failed to press the utility for swifter action by, they say.

Brooks added, however, that Duke Energy has made no commitments to remove ash pits at two operational power plants that sit just over the Halifax County line into North Carolina — the Mayo Plant, just off U.S. 501 headed to Roxboro, and the Roxboro Steam Station, one of the nation’s largest coal-burning plants in western Person County.

Eichinger said that as resources agencies shift their footing to deal with the lasting impacts of the spill, EPA will follow through on another part of its responsibility to the public — enforcing federal regulations and making sure Duke bears responsibility for cleaning up its mess.

“We will recover everything we spend from Duke and they will compensate us,” he said.

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Comments

"stirring up existing contaminants" Right. You can't clean up their mess because you might stir up other contaminants in a constantly churning, moving, and changing riverbed. What a load of bull. That will be the bs reason used to prevent those rich old farts from having to spend their money cleaning up their mess. So quit worrying about your electric bills.

Comments

If a construction crew lets one drop of diesel fuel leak into the river...EPA will arrest the competent person in charge....who is this person for Duke Energy and why have they not been arrested????


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