Officials say Kerr Lake safe to drink

Feb. 11, 2014 @ 06:44 PM

Residents wondering what the impact of the coal ash spill into the Dan River will be on Kerr Lake should be able to breathe a little easier.

Michael Inscoe said the Kerr Lake Regional Water System is keeping a watchful eye on the spread of contaminants from the coal ash leak in Eden by staying in close contact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake, and Duke Energy. Inscoe is a city councilman and chairman for the reservoir’s advisory board.

“At this point, we have no indication that it will be a problem,” he said. “It’s a significant distance away from the North Carolina line and our water intake. My understanding thus far is that Duke Energy has submitted appropriate personnel to contain and clean up the problem.”

N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Public Information Officer Jamie Kritzer said as far as he knew, the water was safe to drink.

“All the reports that our public water supply staff are getting is that the water is safe to drink and that the municipalities downstream of Danville are able to treat the water using normal water treatment processes,” he said.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann said the company plans to test for as long as necessary to ensure the water in Kerr Lake is safe.

“We are sampling all the way down, all the way to Kerr Lake, in our water quality sampling,” she said. “ … The good news is the water quality sampling results continue to improve every day, but we’ll be out there for as long as we need to be until we can resolve the situation to the best of our ability.”

Michael Womack, operations project manager with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers located at John H. Kerr Reservoir, said the only impact they’ve noticed so far is what they’ve seen themselves.

“The only known impact at this time that we have knowledge of is our visual confirmation of the ash plume working its way down into the reservoir,” he said. “There was a noticeable discoloration of the Dan River before entering the lake just about Clarksville.”

Despite this, state officials said the water is still safe. Since then, Womack said, the look of the lake has gone back to normal.

“The discoloration was the biggest noticeable impact,” he said. “Since the discharge was stopped on Saturday morning, the coloration has returned to what we consider normal, and we’re not seeing any visual impact anymore even within the river.”

The problem began Feb. 2 when a security guard discovered a pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond on the grounds of Duke’s Dan River Steam Station had collapsed. Duke Energy reported some 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out and into the river. Coal ash — the waste left when coal is burned — contains arsenic, mercury and lead, as well as more than a dozen heavy metals, many of which are toxic.

Hoffmann said the energy giant installed a plug Saturday to stop the leak, and there haven’t been any further discharges since then.

Kritzer said state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, out on the river are using water quality and sedimentation sample data along with visual inspections of the river to figure out the best way to clean up the spill.

“It’s sort of a two-pronged approach,” he said. “First of all, you’ve got EPA crews and DENR, they’re out on the river in boats identifying where it makes sense to do removal of larger deposits of coal ash in the river. The second prong of that is Duke Energy developing a long-term cleanup plan, and then that will need to be approved by state and federal agencies. So that will need to be approved by my department, by the EPA, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, in some cases, by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers.”

Kritzer said the agency detected a 300 cubic yard deposit of coal ash near the site of the discharge. Duke plans to use some kind of vacuuming mechanism to pick up the ash and will work with state and federal agencies to make sure it’s done in an environmentally responsible manner that disturbs the river and its banks as little as possible. The methods used should also minimize pieces of that deposit floating further down the river.

Duke’s spokeswoman said this is a test of sorts as the company and state and federal agencies seek to find the best way to remove the bulk of the ash from the Dan River.

“What we learn from this work will inform our plan going forward,” Hoffman said. “We’re basically testing a potential removal method for the ash.”

Going forward, the DENR spokesman said containment efforts will have to balance the harm done by the contaminants versus that which could be done by trying to remove the coal ash.

“In cleanup, we will need to balance what environmental damage has been caused by the spill or exists in the river versus what environmental damage you could do in cleaning it up,” Kritzer said. “So, in some cases, it may be more appropriate and less damaging to the environment if the coal ash — particularly in areas where it’s not very thick on the bottom of the river — stays where it is rather than removing it and causing more damage to the health of the river.”

For Duke Energy’s part, Hoffman said the energy company plans to continue to review its methods for handling coal ash.

“We will take a fresh eye,” she said. “We’ve been assessing that for the long-term all along, and we have been transitioning at some of our large coal plants to a dry ash handling. Certainly, this event at the Dan River has made us think we need to take a fresh eye. How we change our plans remains to be seen, but we are certainly doing that.”