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More than a touch of gray

South Boston News
The silt-laden Dan River Wednesday afternoon. (David Conner II photo) / February 06, 2014
Drinking water from the suddenly silvery Dan River is safe for consumption, officials say, in the aftermath of a coal ash spill in North Carolina that changed the hue of the river in Halifax County starting around mid-afternoon Tuesday.

By Wednesday morning the stretch of the Dan that runs through South Boston bore a distinctly metallic tint, replacing the river’s normal muddy brown color. It took about 50 hours for the coal ash wastes to flow here from Eden, N.C., where a holding pond at the retired Dan River Power Plant, owned by Duke Energy, failed around 2 p.m. Sunday.

A fissure opened in the 27-acre pond, allowing an estimated 82,000 tons of fly ash — enough to fill about 32 Olympic-size swimming pools — and up to 27 million gallons of slurry water to escape into the river. The fissure was caused by the collapse of an old 48-inch storm water pipe running underneath the pond.

The failure of the concrete-and-corrugated metal pipe emptied the holding pond for four days running, through Wednesday, when finally the ground buckled around the pipe and did what Duke engineers could not — stanch the spew of wastes. (According to reports, leaking of wastes into the river has since resumed.)

Danville, about 20 miles downriver from Eden, first witnessed the discoloration of the river on Monday. It took another day for the river to turn in color in Halifax County. It probably will take a few more days before the Dan reverts to its normal appearance, said environmental specialist Mike Cholko with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“I’m sure everything will be pretty decent in a few days,” he said.

State environmental officials in North Carolina and Virginia and municipal water directors in Danville and South Boston hastened to assure the public that the spill has had no significant impact on drinking water supplies. Mark Estes, director of the Halifax County Service Authority, issued a statement Tuesday night proclaiming the HCSA’s water is safe and “we should expect little or no impact on our treatment process at the plant.

“The ash has very similar characteristics to activated carbon in which we often use to control taste and odor in our finished water and is filtered out very easily,” Estes said in the statement.

“We will continue to sample and monitor the raw water as the ash moves to be sure that the water is safe to drink,” he stated.

In a follow-up interview Wednesday, Estes was even more emphatic that the discoloration of the river poses no threat: “We been instructed that the treatment process is working and there’s no adverse health impact. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Further downstream from South Boston, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was monitoring possible impacts at Kerr Reservoir (Buggs Island Lake). And the City of Virginia Beach, which taps the Roanoke River basin for a share of its drinking water, acted quickly to avoid the possibility of contamination — shutting off the flow from the Lake Gaston pipeline, downriver from the Dan.

Tom Leahy, public works director for the City of Virginia Beach, 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, based on Virginia Beach’s recent study — commissioned during its fight with Virginia Uranium Inc. over the Coles Hill project — that modeled the impacts of mining wastes escaping into the river basin. With a uranium tailings release, the study found that 90 percent of any contamination would be trapped or diluted by the waters and sediments of Kerr Reservoir.

Leahy said the coal wastes should flush through the basin in similar fashion: “Based on modeling we did during the uranium debate, it is unlikely that any contamination has spread to Lake Gaston.” He added it might take 30 days for the pollution to wash that far downstream.

Official assurances on the Dan spill did little to allay the concerns of some Halifax County residents. Raymond Wilmouth, a resident of the Paces area, was driving into town Wednesday morning when he was stunned to see the Dan “as gray as I’ve ever seen it. It’s covered from bank to bank.” Wilmouth added his main concern was for the river environment: “I’m worried about the dirty water and what it may do to the fish.”

At the Riverdale Food Lion on Wednesday morning, before word of the spill had become widespread, a trickle of shoppers grabbed jugs and 12-packs of bottled water to take home with their grocery purchases. David Frasier, the store manager, said he had noticed an uptick in bottled water sales, although that could be because people are dealing with frozen pipes and other winter water problems.

“I can’t say it was caused by that particular issue [the spill], but I can say sales have increased lately. There’s been a little spike,” said Frasier.

One shopper at the checkout counter — who didn’t want to give her name, but who had a jug of water in her basket — said she had heard the news, and she definitely wouldn’t be drinking from the local supply. She said the bottled water was to share with her dog. “I want to be safe,” she said.

John Aulbach, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water in Richmond, reiterated Wednesday that the public has little to fear from the spill. He said he had been in close contact with Danville utility officials since Monday, and he praised their efforts to deal with the mishap: “The City of Danville water plant and personnel have responded very well to this incident.”

Initial testing has shown normal pH and oxygen levels in the water, while Aulbach said results are still pending on particulate matter — heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins that are commonly found in coal wastes. Results of testing for heavy metal concentrations were expected by Wednesday night or Thursday.

Late Wednesday, Duke Energy released a statement saying that "levels of trace metals, such as arsenic, lead and selenium, were less than two parts per billion at the Danville and South Boston, Va., water intakes as of last evening. This is the lowest level lab instruments can accurately measure."

The City of Danville also indicated Wednesday that an update would be in the offing by that evening, but later held off making a formal release, saying it was too early to make a definitive statement. "While the preliminary results indicate the water leaving the city’s treatment facility meets public health standards, we will wait on confirmation of the results before we issue a news release," wrote Arnold Hendricks, the city's public information officer, in an e-mail Wednesday

Aulbach noted the high level of particulates “has made it [water from the Dan] difficult to treat from a physical process standpoint,” but he said the Danville filtration plant, with its “best available technology,” is up to the task. Water from the intake is suspended for longer periods than normal to allow particulate matter to settle, and what remains suspended in the flow of water into the plant is trapped in filters.

The spill “has not had a negative impact on their ability to produce water that meets [clean water] criteria,” said Aulbach.

Estes, the HCSA’s director, noted that the South Boston water treatment plant uses the same conventional sand filtration process as Danville’s facility. The HCSA adds chemical coagulants to attach to heavy metal contaminants — causing them to sink even faster than they already would.

“The metals are heavy, so they pretty much drop out with the sedimentation process,” said Estes.

To deal with discoloration, Estes said aluminum sulfur can be added “to pull the color out of the water and settle it with the particulates.” He compared the cleansing process to “kind of like clearing up a fish aquarium.

Once the HCSA learned of the initial test results from Danville, “we felt pretty like that we could handle it easily,” he added.

The impact of the spill on the river environment may take longer to gauge. Cholko, with the Virginia DEQ office in Lynchburg, noted that the coal ash will settle in the riverbed, and he predicted that hard rains upstream could create some minor discolorations in the future as river sediments are stirred up by the storms.

“We’ll start to see some gray water for a while,” he said. “This is part of the normal flushing process.”

The impact on fish and other river life is harder to predict. Parts of the Dan and Kerr Lake already are covered by fish consumption advisories caused by the buildup of sediment contaminants such as PCPs and mercury. “You’re tending to concentrate those chemical constituents in the body tissue” of fish and other organisms, which is why DEQ and the health department advises against eating more than two portions of fish monthly from the waterways. “When you stop to think about everything in industrialized waterways, it’s something you’ve got to consider,” he said.

Asked if the coal spill would make matters significantly worse, Cholko said, “I doubt it.”

The size of spill is small compared to the 2008 coal ash spill at Kingston, Tenn., the largest such disaster in U.S. history. That accident led to the release of 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash into the Clinch River and other tributaries of the Tennessee; the Dan River discharge could involve some 100,000 cubic yards.

The ash basin at the retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C. holds about 1.2 million tons of ash in two ponds, both secured by a dam. The dam has not been affected by the pipe failure, say Duke officials. The coal units at the site, built in 1949, operated until 2012 when the facility was converted to a combined-cycle coal and gas generator.

The spill brought a stinging response from Cale Jaffe with the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke Energy to force the cleanup of all of its 14 coal ash sites in North Carolina. The SELC Virginia director noted that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has filed a series of enforcement actions against Duke “at a time when utilities in neighboring states have voluntarily removed coal ash from storage ponds near waterways.

“According to DENR’s enforcement action, the coal ash has polluted the groundwater at the Dan River site for years, exceeding standards for toxic substances including arsenic, boron, and sulfate …. This is a painful reminder of the importance of safeguarding Danville’s drinking water sources. There is no reason any utility should continue to store toxic coal ash on the banks of our rivers and lakes.”

HCSA prepared for Duke Energy coal ash leak

The Halifax County Service Authority says it is prepared to deal with the effects of an coal ash spill upstream on the Dan River, caused when a storm drain pipe running underneath a coal ash pit collapsed Sunday at the Dan River Power project in Eden, N.C. The ash spill, expected to reach South Boston sometime Tuesday night, has caused discoloration of the Dan in the Danville area.

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Then Mr Jaffe and the SELC should devise and fund plans for ash storage at these facilities. It's always easy to spend someone else's money, and it will require money. _Plenty_ of money.

Any power production method is going to affect someone or something- even the so-called "green" technologies. Are these Loraxes willing to forgo electricity completely? Even wind and solar have their dark underbellies.

Seems to me that a whole industry has been spawned legislating and suing people who provide a service essential to modern life.


For all you uranium proponents, head on down to the water treatment plant and get you a tall glass full of safety.


Not uranium MORON. Different type of storage. And besides the Dan River runs so clean you can hardly tell.


Oh that's right its completely different so that means it could never leak or find its way to a river? Frogs wouldn't bump their asses either if they had wings. Idiot!

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