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Groups call for faster response to coal ash spill

SoVaNow.com / April 28, 2014
Stakeholder groups on Kerr Lake are drumming up public pressure on Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash spill on the Dan River — a task that has taken on greater urgency, advocates say, with the recent discovery of coal ash deposits in the lake.

The call to arms — sounded by a number of groups, including the Roanoke River Basin Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Appalachain Voices — came at town hall-style meeting Thursday night at the Perry Memorial Library in Henderson, N.C., near Kerr Lake (better known in Virginia as Buggs Island Lake).

With evidence of coal ash from the Feb. 2 spill at Duke’s Eden, N.C. plant now surfacing in Kerr Lake, environmentalists challenged local property owners and concerned citizens to push back against what they described as a lackadaisal clean-up effort by Duke Energy.

Speaking to the packed crowd were Michael Ward of the Henry County Public Service Authority, Gene Addesso, president of the Roanoke River Basin Association, Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices and a former staffer with the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Mary Maclean Asbill, an attorney and lobbyist with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Deborah Ferruccio of the Environmental Justice and Pollution Prevention group.

“We have to get fierce. We are going up against one of the largest energy companies in the United States, one of the largest in the world. They are able to do what they do because the EPA and the state regulators have had literally no regulations governing [coal ash disposal] for decades — and so now we are facing a really big problem,” Ferruccio told the crowd.

One question cropped up repeatedly during the meeting: “Is it safe to swim or boat in Kerr Lake this summer?”

The short answer is “no one knows,” said Roanoke River Basin Association Vice President Mike Pucci.

In February, a pipe running under a coal ash waste lagoon at the shuttered Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. ruptured, spilling 39,000 tons of toxic waste into the Dan River, which flows into Virginia and Kerr Lake reservoir.

“Logically we all know it [coal ash] is going into Kerr Lake,” Ferruccio continued before showing a news clip from a Time Warner interview with North Carolina’s Director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Tom Reeder. In the segment, Reeder admitted that trace amounts of the ash have been found in Kerr Lake Reservoir.

More recently Reeder recanted his earlier statement, telling North Carolina’s Environmental Review Board on April 22 that reports of coal ash on Kerr Lake are anecdotal.

Addesso, with the RRBA, offered his own outlook after personally calling several tackle shops and speaking with anglers to see if they’ve spotted any deposits in the water: “They all said they found no evidence of coal ash in the lake.”

However, John Soles of Henderson, N.C. shared a photo he took recently of coal ash on the banks of the reservoir near the Ivy Hill boat ramp, in North Carolina. Soles, who said he took the photos on a fishing trip, said the lake level rose by nearly three feet days after he snapped the picture, “which made it impossible to see the material.

“I have fished for more than 40 years and have never seen anything like that before,” said Soles. “It was apparent to us” — he was fishing with a friend — “that what we saw was some derivative of coal ash deposited by wave action on the rocky shoreline.”

One group that has received answers to their concerns are area farmers. Last week, North Carolina State University’s Department of Soil Science issued a study on the potential impact of the coal ash spill on agricultural producers in the river basin.

The study concluded that:

the river water can be used safely to irrigate crops and as drinking water for livestock;

an influx of trace elements during flooding of farmlands will have only a marginal effect on the soil and crops.

However, the N.C. State study contained several cautionary notes. Farmers who irrigate their crops or water their livestock from the river were advised to:

• Ensure that irrigation water intakes are near the surface of the water, and away from bottom sediment that could contain coal ash.

• Monitor the USEPA website for “indications of periodic increases in trace-element concentrations.”

• Avoid using the water during periods of turbidity, such as might occur after a rainfall event in the upstream watershed.

• Annually test soil and crop tissues for buildup of micronutrients such as copper and zinc.

Thursday’s speakers spent the bulk of the meeting outlining the steps they are taking to push Duke Energy to clean up the mess, while further studying the effect of the spill on the lake.

Ward said several groups are advocating for “the prevention of future coal ash spills in all the waters of the Roanoke River Basin, and the elimination of coal ash storage ponds in and around the basin.”

“This does not need to turn into a Hudson River situation,” Ward said, a reference to the contamination of the Hudson River in the 19970s that led to it being declared a PCB Superfund site.

The cleanup of the famed New York waterway did not commence until five years ago.

The advocacy groups also detailed their testing efforts on the river basin — instead of accepting the word of agencies like DENR, EPA, and Duke Energy itself. Their tests encompass “some metals, some toxicity testing, some macro invertebrates, the little bugs that live in the bottom of the river, to make sure the little critters are healthy in the river,” said Ward.

He was critical of current EPA and DENR sampling practices, which he said were limited: “Instead of taking water samples from one spot on the river, which is just giving you only one little window, let’s test six samples going across the width of the river to get a full picture of what’s going down the river.

During rainfalls, Ward continued, “everybody knows what happens to the river when we get a storm. We need to get a sample during those times, too, to make sure that it’s not just being pushed on down from the rain.”

As far as cleanup goes, Ward pointed to EPA plans to dredge behind the Schoolfield Dam, the site of the Danville’s raw water intake from the Dan River, within the next week or two. Using a vacuum dredge, EPA will suck up the contaminated silt.

“It’s taken a while to get everything mobilized and set up, but that is their next step,” said Ward.

However, “the problem is that are some legacy contaminants in the river, PCBs, mercury, so we definitely don’t want to make the situation worse where they are being stirred up. So they are vacuuming that out. They are also putting [in an underwater fence] to try to filter and catch some of the pollutants that may be stirred up or anything else to keep it from going downstream further.”

In the legal arena, Duke Energy is fighting battles in both state and federal court to thwart quick action to shut down and move its wet coal ash storage ponds, said Southern Environmental Law Center lobbyist Asbill. Duke, which has annual revenues of $50 billion, claims it will cost between $2 billion and $10 billion over ten years to close ash storage landfills at 14 currently-operating and decomissioned power plants in North Carolina. Undertaking the expense would cause customers to see a $20 per month increase in their electric bills, the utility contends.

Duke has aided efforts to enact legislation –pushed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke executive — that would give the company unlimited time to study ways to mitigate coal ash issues.

Better legislation has been put forward by N.C. State Representative Chuck McGrady and State Senator Tom Apodaca — both Republicans from Hendersonville — and House and Senate Democrats, said Asbill, who expects the legislation to call for faster closure and cleanup of coal ash ponds, with hard and fast deadlines to move all existing ponds to high and dry safe storage away from the state’s waterways.

State officials in Virginia are watching what is happening in North Carolina. Like North Carolina, Virginia regulations lack requirements for groundwater monitoring, do not require liners for impoundments or call for regular inspections by operators or regulators.

Power plants in Virginia produce about 2.4 million tons of coal ash each year, much of which is stored in 25 ponds around the state. Over half of these coal ash ponds are unlined, which means toxic chemicals can all too easily seep into nearby waters, harming aquatic resources and potentially contaminating drinking water and endangering public health.

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