Coal ash impact continues to spread

Feb. 19, 2014 @ 09:25 PM

Federal officials said the effects of two leaks at a Duke Energy plant that sent coal ash spewing into the Dan River have reached some 70 miles down river, near Kerr Lake, though the long-term environmental impacts are still unfolding.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a public assessment Tuesday, reporting it found sandbar-like deposits of ash in the Dan River and traces of it all the way to Kerr Lake. The ash has the potential to bury fish, mussels and other aquatic life on the river bottom.

Local officials have said so far levels in Kerr Lake — from which Henderson, Vance County and others draw drinking water — remain safe.

Along the Dan River, public health officials have advised residents not to touch the river water or eat fish. The Dan snakes from Eden north of Greensboro into southern Virginia, where it connects to Kerr Lake.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors widened their investigation Wednesday, seeking additional documents and ordering about 20 state environmental agency employees to testify before a grand jury. The Associated Press reported state officials were ordered to hand over any records regarding investments, cash or other items of value they may have received from Duke Energy or its employees.

On Feb. 2, a pipe running under a coal ash pond collapsed at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden. Duke officials said this pipe was completely sealed earlier this month. A second pipe dumping arsenic-laden groundwater into the river, discovered Tuesday, was about 90 percent contained Wednesday afternoon.

At a media briefing Wednesday, environmental Sec. John Skvarla refused to answer whether he’d been served with a subpoena when asked. A spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory, a 28-year employee of Duke, said the governor had not been subpoenaed.

The 20 court orders follow two Feb. 10 subpoenas, which were issued the day after an AP story raised questions about a proposed deal between state officials and Duke Energy that would have fined the energy giant $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater contamination at two facilities.

The settlement came about after a coalition of citizen groups tried to use the federal Clean Water Act to sue Duke in federal court last year; the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources intervened three times to issue violations and take the case to state court, where the agency negotiated a settlement environmental groups said shielded Duke from harsher federal penalties and included no requirements the utility clean up past pollution and prevent future contamination. The state put the settlement on hold last week.

The groups want Duke Energy to remove the coal ash from unlined pits near lakes and rivers and transfer it to sealed landfills licensed to handle toxic waste. The company has said it plans to close an unspecified number of the dumps.

At the media briefing, Skvarla criticized the media for questioning whether the settlement was in the best interest of North Carolina residents, saying DENR and environmental groups worked together on the deal.

“Somehow or another this perception has been created that we are adversaries to the citizens when, in fact, we are all on the same side of the table,” he said. “We are partners. We all have the same outcome in mind, and that outcome is to clean up the spill, to protect the environment and to protect the citizens of North Carolina.”

Lawyers for the groups that originally tried to sue Duke said the secretary has engaged in revisionist history and that it’s hard to be on the same side of the table when they weren’t allowed in the room for negotiations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.