More testing needed at Kerr Lake

May. 10, 2014 @ 05:07 PM

In a few short weeks, the shores of Kerr Lake will be overrun with tourists and residents seeking to boat, swim and fish.

The John H. Kerr Reservoir, spanning the border of North Carolina and Virginia, brings roughly 1.2 to 1.4 million tourists to the region every year for recreation.

The lake’s 850 miles of shoreline is also only 80 miles downstream of the Dan River, the site of the third largest coal ash spill in the United States.

Repeated testing and sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state regulatory agencies and even the Kerr Lake Regional Water System — which supplies drinking water to Henderson, Oxford and Warren Counties — indicates the coal ash has not made it as far as Kerr Lake.

Information released by the EPA recently stated sampling the reservoir’s surface water did not detect the presence of coal ash; however, levels for iron, thallium and chromium exceeded what’s safe for humans in a few sediment samples taken from Kerr Lake.

EPA spokesman James Pinkney said those slightly higher levels do not indicate a threat but rather the need for continual sampling and analyses.

“The presence of these metals alone does not immediately indicate the presence of coal ash,” Pinkney wrote in an email. “There may be other sources of these metals, including naturally occurring metals. EPA evaluates the sample results in their entirety when making determinations. This includes comparison to background data (data collected upstream from the spill, any available percent ash results, as well as analytical methods and detection limits in making determinations. EPA has not detected ash in these samples).”

Still, the Vance County Board of Commissioners, Henderson City Council, Oxford Board of Commissioners and Warren County Board of Commissioners have all passed the same resolution calling for immediate cleanup of the areas affected by the spill.

Mike Inscoe, Henderson city councilman, said the severity of the resolution is appropriate.

“We need to wait to see what plan Duke Energy has to clean up ponds,” he said. “If action doesn’t occur or isn’t timely, I think it is up to us to make it stronger.”

Vance County Commissioner Tommy Hester said he is confident that the utility will do the right thing.

“It’s a problem that needs to be taken care of sooner not later,” he said. “The longer it sits in the river the more chance you have of the problem coming to Kerr Lake. I’m concerned because it’s our drinking water and one of our major assets for this community.”

Since a storm water pipe collapsed beneath Duke Energy’s coal ash pond at the Dan River Steam Station on Feb. 2, Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed legislation that would eventually close all 33 ash ponds at 14 sites in the state and convert all the coal-fired plants to dry fly ash handling systems, which means the ash would not be mixed with water in the storage process.

The proposed legislation calls for the removal of coal ash ponds from four Duke Energy sites, including the one in Eden, to a lined landfill, which helps prevent toxic chemicals in the waste — such as arsenic, selenium, thallium and mercury — from leaching into the groundwater.

The L.V. Sutton Steam Plant along the Cape Fear River was also on the list of plants to be removed.

Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, has studied the fish and wildlife living in Lake Sutton— a cooling reservoir Duke Energy constructed for the plant.

Lake Sutton is used as a disposal site for wastewater discharged from the power plant’s coal ash ponds. Lemly has not done any testing at Kerr Lake.

Lemly found the trace element selenium in Lake Sutton and concluded discharges from the Sutton Steam Plant are causing selenium poisoning in the lake, according to a Feb. 17 article for the journal “Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.”

Lemly, who has published 47 research articles on selenium toxicity to fish and wildlife and the reference book “Selenium Assessment in Aquatic Ecosystems,” said there could be reproductive failure and deformities in fish and wildlife if the ash reaches the Kerr Lake.

“Once it hits the reservoir, the ash will settle out,” he said. “It’s a heavy material, full of all those elements. You wouldn’t expect to see it floating around the surface. It tends to settle out where wildlife live, exposing them to contaminants that have insidious ways of poisoning.”

In Lake Sutton, he said, chemicals like selenium would bioaccumulate — or build up — in fish, resulting in elevated concentrations in their tissues.

“We have been down this road many times and we know what these containments can do the wildlife,” he said.

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.