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SoVaNow.com / February 26, 2014Four weeks into the Duke Energy coal ash spill in Eden, N.C., new information continues to emerge about the likely damage to the Dan River and downstream Buggs Island Lake. Last Thursday, South Boston hosted a town hall meeting with federal and state agency officials who spent three hours-plus fielding questions on the impact of the disaster. We reported on the meeting in Monday’s edition (the article is posted online at http://www.sovanow.com), but as with all such coverage, inevitably there’s lots of interesting stuff that gets left out in the interest of moving the narrative along. Straight from the cutting room floor, here are some tidbits (and observations) that perhaps merit further attention:
ω The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency team on the ground didn’t exactly hide its frustration with the lax state of coal ash regulation in this country. The lead presenter Thursday was Kevin Eichinger, EPA’s on-scene disaster response coordinator, who on more than one occasion came close to calling out his own agency for not forcing Duke to clean up fly ash dumps next to waterways (the utility has 14 such facilities in North Carolina alone, including two upstream from us in Person County). If you want to know why it is that power plants can dispose of toxic wastes in unlined containment ponds built uncomfortably close to rivers, there’s a simple answer: Coal ash is not recognized by EPA as a hazardous material. Supposedly the agency is developing new regulations to change this, with a draft due out by December, but whether the rules will be soft or stringent no one knows for certain.
Of course, the EPA has all kinds of regulations right now that aren’t being enforced for political reasons — curbs on carbon dioxide emissions being a noteworthy example — so a new rulebook, tough or not, offers no guarantee that companies like Duke will be forced to clean up their messes (preferably before the next disaster strikes.)
ω It’s doubtful many people walked out of the meeting having changed their minds about the quality of the water in the Dan. I get this: No matter how many times public officials insist that drinking water is safe after a major contamination event, there will be a decent share of the public that won’t believe them. Right or wrong, people are not crazy to worry that toxins could be floating around in their tap water. (For the record, I believe such fears, while understandable, are misplaced.) One of the best things agency officials did Thursday night, however, was not to argue the matter. Several members of the audience asked for recommendations of testing labs and water filtration products they could put a portion of their paychecks toward, and EPA and state officials demurred — appropriately so, since no public sector employee has any business endorsing a private commercial product. Yet one presenter did point to a government website that lists certified commercial laboratories that people can contact on their own. (If you’re interested, go to http://water.epa.gov/drink/local/va.cfm). The response beat the heck out of browbeating people with the argument they should simply trust what they are being told about the water.
All in all, I thought the agency representatives did a fine job of setting a respectful tone for the meeting — in particular, by taking great pains to respond to every discussion thread. (People do have a way of posing three- and four-part questions that can be difficult for anyone to keep track of.) EPA’s Eichinger mentioned how the agency learned a lot from responding to the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., by far the largest disaster of its kind in U.S. history. (The Dan River spill ranks third). The preparation, ill-gained as it may have been, showed.
ω The night’s most awkward moment, in my book anyway, belonged to Daniel Richardson with the Southside Health District, who somehow ended up trying to answer the unenviable question, “Is it safe to go out on the Dan?” Close proximity to the river water poses no great risk, Richardson said, but it’s probably best to avoid contact with coal ash that he described as “pretty abrasive.” Also, “we don’t fully know, quite honestly” the effects of ingesting small amounts of water — as one might do when swimming — and, speaking more broadly about the state of the Dan, Richardson opined, “I can’t tell you it was safe before; I’m not going to tell you it’s safe now.” Less reassuring words have rarely been spoken.
ω The crowd was tough and demanding — as it had every right to be — and many of the remarks over the course of the meeting were spot-on. But I thought the best question of the night belonged to one of the professionals in the audience, Cale Jaffe, head of the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, who brought up a point I suspect few people have considered. (I sure hadn’t.) With all the talk of cleaning out the coal ash that already has settled over a 70-mile swath of the river from Eden to the mouth of Buggs Island Lake, what does Duke, EPA and the rest propose to do with the recovered waste material? Store it in a lined landfill, away from any nearby waterway, which would be the best option?
No. Instead, the ash will be deposited back into faulty Dan River Steam Station waste lagoon from which it escaped in the first place. (The source of the leak, a broken underground stormwater pipe, has since been plugged with concrete.) Eichinger acknowledged this solution is only a stop-gap until Duke comes up with a permanent plan for closing the Dan River landfill. Again, not exactly reassuring.
ω Duke Energy’s spokesman at the meeting, Jeff Brooks, arguably deserves a sliver of praise just for showing up, although I’m loath to give people much credit for doing something that is pretty much a necessity anyway. Brooks offered the company line that Duke will pay for all costs incurred during the spill’s emergency phase, although he added enough qualifiers to lead one to foresee a disappointing response by the utility after all is said and done. (If you’re hoping to get Duke to pay for testing of your wellwater, a lawyer might come in handy.)
After the meeting was over, I went over to introduce myself to Brooks and ask a few questions: Did Duke ever inspect the drainage pipe that collapsed underneath the coal ash pit, opening up the sinkhole that allowed ash to flow into the river? Why did Duke not know more about the condition and design of the pipe? (After initially saying that the line was made of reinforced concrete, the utility subsequently found corrugated metal at the break point. The pipe was placed below the ash pit half a century ago, with tons of wastes and wastewater weighing down on it ever since. It’s a wonder it hadn’t failed before now.) Every query about the drainage system met with the same response: You’ll need to contact our corporate office for that information. Either Brooks was woefully unprepared to venture beyond pat answers or under orders not to talk about matters that could be fodder for litigation. I’m guessing the latter.
ω EPA and North Carolina regulatory authorities bear the blame as well for allowing the risks posed by these old drainage pipes (there are two at the Dan River site) to go unaddressed. Eichinger openly admitted as much: “Nobody looked at these lines. Nobody thought they would fail.” It’s a great argument for the position taken by Duke’s critics — that poorly-designed and lightly-regulated coal ash dumps ought not to be allowed anywhere near waterways, under any circumstances. “I don’t know what idiot thought to put a pond of poison next to a river,” said Alan Wolf of Clarksville, who attended the South Boston meeting. (Wolf also has penned an excellent letter in today’s Viewpoint column about the culpability of war-on-regulation Republicans, including Fifth District Rep. Robert Hurt, in this fiasco). In the aftermath of the spill, Duke Energy is now talking about sealing off its Dan River coal ash site by wrapping it in a liner and burying it under a layer of earth. This is unacceptable — any solution short of full removal of the dump should be fought at every turn.
ω If you’ve been paying attention to social media sites, you may have seen the photo from Greenpeace (reproduced above) that attributes a turtle slaughter to the spill. One of the officials on hand for Thursday’s meeting was Craig Giggleman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist stationed in eastern Virginia, so I made a point of asking him about this. For the record, Fish and Wildlife has recovered one dead turtle (found at a Danville city park near the Schoo lfield Dam) and sent off the carcass to a Virginia game and inland fisheries veterinarian to be autopsied. But Giggleman ventured that it is entirely plausible that the coal ash spill has wreaked, or will wreak, havoc on turtles in the Dan. “The [dead] turtle made sense. But that’s the only one we’ve seen,” he said. (Also above, there’s a photo my wife took of a baby turtle she found in Danville, juxtaposed with her car key. These are vulnerable creatures, to be sure).
The theory behind a possible turtle kill: As ash settles over the riverbed, it cuts off the supply of oxygen to the hibernating reptiles. Either they suffocate, or they emerge from the sediment and swim out into the cold river, which is equally fatal given their cold blood. Turtles likely have suffered great harm in this disaster, although biologists are equally if not more concerned about the Dan’s other species, especially endangered fish such as the Roanoke logperch.
ω An excellent point was raised by an audience member Thursday whose name I didn’t catch: What level of economic impact can we expect in the coming months and years as “tourism goes down because people don’t go to the lake, property values go down, the counties don’t get the revenue they expected”? As it turns out, the Greensboro News & Record published an article this weekend that goes to the heart of this question. The headline: “Spill cost likely starts at $70 million.” (You can find the article on-line at http://www.news-record.com). A reporter for the paper interviewed Wake Forest University professor Dennis Lemly, also a research fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and an acknowledged expert on coal ash, whose work has buttressed legal efforts by environmental groups to force the cleanup of utility dumps. Lemly pegged the initial damages at $70 million but told the Greensboro News & Record that the costs are likely to rise to 5 to 10 times that number — perhaps even above that $700 million upper range estimate.
The losses, added Lemly, will come from forfeited outdoor activities, the value of fish and wildlife that might have been consumed by fishermen and hunters, and “[l]ower property values along the lake or river because of ‘the stigma of environmental pollution,’” in the article’s depressing wording. Worst of all, though, is the potential impact on fish and wildlife. The Wake Forest professor said the biggest contamination threat from the coal ash is not arsenic or mercury, toxins that get the most mention in press reports, but selenium — which causes fish deformities, fluid accumulations, cataracts and protruding eyeballs. According to the article, “[t]oo much selenium also renders fish unable to reproduce, Lemly said. If nothing changes and selenium keeps contaminating the lake or river, that species gets wiped out in that area.”
The article goes onto cite discharges of selenium into Belews Lake in North Carolina in the 1970s and ‘80s which killed off 19 of the lake’s 20 fish species. Belews Lake is a Duke project, too. Asked about this, the company said it responded aggressively to rectify the problem once the scope of the damagebecame clear. “The fish recovered fully some time ago, and Belews Lake has a robust fishery today,” a Duke Energy spokesperson told the newspaper. “The vast majority of ash being generated today at our North Carolina operating plants is already being managed in lined landfills.”
Only that’s not true on the Dan River, or in Person County, where Duke operates two nearby (and massive) coal-fired plants. Duke has a great deal to answer for in Southern Virginia, where the full brunt of its irresponsibility will inevitably be felt. The South Boston meeting last week was, at best, a small start; the real action is yet to come. Will Duke Energy be required to pay an appropriate penalty for its recklessness? Will the legal system (shaped by such worthies as Robert Hurt) allow the federal government to exact the 82,000 tons of flesh from Duke that this grievous injury to the environment demands? Will EPA finally crack down on the menace of river-borne coal ash? To the extent people walked away dissatisfied after the town hall meeting, the plain fact that these questions remain unanswered goes a long way towards explaining why.