Two Months After Coal Ash Spill, Duke Cleaning Up The Dan River

CREDIT: A.P. Images

The Dan River coal ash spill

Nearly two months after 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water leaked from a storage pond at Duke Energy’s shuttered Eden power plant in North Carolina, the slow process of cleaning the toxic sludge from the bottom of the Dan River has begun.

Duke announced on Monday that it is moving equipment into Abreu-Grogan Park in Danville, Virginia which will serve as the staging ground for the clean-up operation. Danville was the closest downstream community to the spill site. City officials maintained throughout the days following the spill that the water was still safe to drink, but the sludge that has settled at the bottom of the river is dangerous to aquatic life and residents have been warned not to swim in the water or eat fish from the area.

The coal ash deposit slated for clean up is near the Schoolfield Dam on the north bank of the Dan River across from the park. According to Duke officials, the deposit is 350 yards by 20 yards and at least a foot deep — a total of 2,310 cubic yards, or 2,500 tons of sludge. It is the largest of four such deposits state and federal officials have identified. Clean up in Danville has been delayed for weeks by rough winter weather. Coal ash must also be cleaned from concrete tanks at the water treatment plant where it has been accumulating since the spill.

Duke has hired Phillips & Jordan Inc. to do the necessary vacuum dredging — the same company that cleaned up after the massive Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, in 2008. Clean up at the site is expected to stretch into July. The coal ash will be moved to lined landfills in Virginia and North Carolina.

As serious work to mitigate the environmental costs of the spill begins in earnest in Danville, the Charlotte Observer has reported that the EPA had concerns back in 2013 about how the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was responding to Duke’s environmental violations at several of its other coal ash storage sites in the state. The EPA’s concerns have surfaced in emails made public through public records requests.

The EPA’s concerns were over a proposed settlement announced last July for illegal discharges of coal ash-contaminated wastewater from Duke’s Asheville plant in Buncombe County and its Riverbend plant near Charlotte.

Monitoring of groundwater quality near the plants showed levels of boron, manganese, and thallium that exceeded regulatory limits. At the time, the initial $99,111 fine was publicly blasted by environmental and campaign watchdog groups as a “remarkable sweetheart deal anchored with $1 million in campaign contributions.”

And now the EPA appears to have, to some degree, privately agreed with that assessment. The Charlotte Observer reported that EPA officials told DENR that that amount “seems low considering the number of years these facilities are alleged to have been out of compliance.” The EPA also thought more testing and monitoring for pollution should be required. In the wake of the Dan River spill, the DENR is reconsidering that settlement.

While a federal criminal investigation is underway into the relationship between Duke Energy and the DENR, 19 major shareholders asked Duke Energy’s board of directors to launch an independent investigation into the Feb. 2 spill.