But a lab analysis of Dan River’s water, conducted by Waterkeeper Alliance, show sobering findings. As opposed to “background” water tests Duke Energy allegedly collected, Waterkeeper’s analysis found the water immediately downstream of the spill with high levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxins.
Waterkeeper reported that the 0.129 mg/L for lead concentration alone is 50 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation for wildlife and 1000 times the maximum for drinking water.
“Our sample crew on the Dan River today reports that there is still coal ash waste dripping out of the pipe,” Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a press release. “Waterkeeper Alliance is very concerned that neither Duke Energy nor government officials have released any heavy metal test results from the ash being discharged into the Dan River.”
Sunday afternoon, a storm pipe under a coal ash pond located between Danville, Virginia, and Eden, North Carolina ruptured. The toxic brew that covered the river looked like “lava” or gray sludge, eyewitnesses said. Since a security guard discovered the broken pipe, 82,000 tons of coal byproduct mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water have leaked into Dan River.
In a statement Wednesday, a Danville, Virginia spokesperson maintained no arsenic or heavy metals have been found in the first samples of river water.
Although the initial reports show no contamination, there is as yet no way of knowing the long-term damage. Duke Energy has long come under fire for its coal ash ponds killing and deforming hundreds of thousands of fish in North Carolina. The impact on wildlife is still unknown, but the sediment that sinks to the bottom of the river can be deadly to fish.
Dan River flows through southern Virginia, into John H. Kerr Reservoir, into the Roanoke River, and out into the Atlantic via Ablemarle Sound.
Coal ash stored in unlined ponds pose a major public threat, but have escaped EPA regulation for decades (Over at Wonkblog, Brad Plumer has a good primer on the lack of coal ash regulation).
The EPA is expected to announce what it will do about coal ash at the end of 2014. This spill is considered the third-largest; the most notable spill released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash into a river in 2008.
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency listed Duke Energy’s 53-year-old Dan River ash ponds as a high hazard risk. But before the spill, Duke’s former Dan River station maintained in 2009 it was under control, telling the EPA, “We are confident, based on our ongoing monitoring, maintenance and inspections, that each of our ash basin dams has the structural integrity necessary to protect the public and the environment.”