North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources is cautioning residents to “avoid prolonged direct contact” with a certain area of the Dan River after a stormwater pipe break spilled up to 82,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy retaining pond into the river last Sunday.
The reasoning behind the DENR’s caution is the results of water sampling downstream of the spill that show levels of arsenic above the 10 micrograms per liter human safety threshold. Originally, the DENR had reported that “arsenic levels for all sampling locations were within state standards.” The agency clarified that statement in a press release Sunday, saying they should have publicly noted that some samples contained elevated arsenic levels.
“We made an honest mistake while interpreting the results,” said Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources said in the release. “The bottom line remains that we are concerned for the long-term health of the Dan River and are working with our state and federal partners and the utility to begin the cleanup. We will continue to test the water in the river as we assess the spill’s impacts and determine the most appropriate ways to clean up the river. We are in this for the long haul.”
On February 3, arsenic levels at one sampling site below the spill location were 40 micrograms per liter, with 13 micrograms per liter at the North Carolina-Virginia border. The agency notes that the concentrations of arsenic have decreased as time has passed since the incident, and agency officials are maintaining that tap water is safe to drink.
The agency’s announcement comes soon after a lab analysis from Waterkeeper Alliance found elevated levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxins in the river. It’s still unclear how the spill will affect fish and other wildlife, but a DENR spokesman told CNN that there is “cause for concern for the long-term impacts of this coal ash spill on the health of the Dan River.
But before the spill, North Carolina’s DENR has not made cleaning up coal ash ponds, like the one that leaked last Sunday, its top priority. According to the AP, the DENR has blocked attempts from environmental groups to use the Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clean out coal ash ponds three times over the last year. The DENR, according to the environmentalist groups, has instead negotiated with Duke and chosen to impose small fines on the company instead of making it clean up its coal ash ponds.
“We have a governor right now that has very close ties to Duke, the state’s largest polluter and a major political contributor to his campaigns,” said Amy Adams, who was a regional director at the DENR before she resigned last November. “Under the new administration, North Carolina has changed the definition of who its customer is from the public and the natural resources it is supposed to protect to the industries it regulates. There’s been a huge push away from environmental protection and toward promoting economic growth.”