On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 3, a security guard at a Duke Energy plant near the North Carolina-Virginia border noticed the water level in a reservoir pond was dropping quickly.
He told facility managers, and what ensued was a chain of relayed messages: First to environmental professionals working for Duke; then local authorities in nearby Eden, N.C., Rockingham County, N.C., and Danville, Va.; the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management; and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
These details of how Duke Energy communicated about a coal ash spill into North Carolina’s Dan River, which flows into treatment plants for potable water in Danville, Va., were presented Monday to a state legislative commission on the environment. Many points about the leak, which according to Duke released up to 39,000 tons, remained unclear: Could Duke have better monitored its coal ash ponds? What kind of action may lawmakers take to regulate 14 other such ponds? Who will pay to clean the Dan River and who will do it?
Tom Reeder, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ division of water resources, told lawmakers that the spill didn’t present a risk to human health because treatment plants in Danville, which is downstream from the energy site, filtered harmful substances from the water. What is unclear is how far the coal ash was spread and what will be its effects once it settles on the river bottom, he said.
“We noted no fish kills as a result of this release,” Reeder said. But “if you’re some sort of a mobile species, like a mollusk or a snail or you’re a plant or something like that, and you’re buried under coal ash, yeah, you’re going to die.”
Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which on three occasions has filed notices with intent to sue Duke over its coal ash dumps, told lawmakers that ash reservoirs are “a disaster waiting to happen.”
Duke Energy took responsibility for the spill. George Everett, a Duke lobbyist, told lawmakers the company has started a task force to review how ash is handled in any of its plants that use coal to generate energy.
“We apologize that this incident occurred,” Everett said. “We’re taking responsibility for it, and we’re making every effort to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years before running for governor in 2008, told reporters Monday afternoon that his administration will require Duke to clean damage left by the Feb. 2 pipe rupture and resolve issues at its other coal ash facilities across the state, according to the Greensboro News & Record.
“They’ve got to come up with a long-term solution quickly,” he said.
Correction: Five photos have been removed from the above slideshow because they were not of the Dan River coal ash site. They were aerial photos of the Riverbed Station coal ash site north of Charlotte.