Feds Expand Coal Ash Investigation While Second Pipe Continues Contaminant Spill Into Dan River

By Carissa Joines


Clean water is not political, however recent events surrounding the coal ash spill from a Duke Energy-owned storage facility located on the Dan River in Eden have fired up a line of people that include political appointees, politicians, pundits, environmentalists, and everyday people who consume the water that has been contaminated.

sandbags blocking new spil from 36" pipe - photo DENR
sandbags blocking new spill from 36″ pipe – photo DENR

The NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources held a press conference midday Wednesday to discuss developments in the actions taken following the initial spill on Feb 2.

As previously reported HERE, Federal authorities became involved in the matter after expressing frustration with the way DENR had been handling violations committed by Duke Energy at a number of their plants. The first subpoenas included DENR and Duke records related to the initial spill, but recently obtained documents revealed that the Federal investigation was expanded to include other instances of violations as well as records from 13 similar locations owned and operated by Duke Energy. The subpoenas also include specifically named state employees.

The subpoenas demand documents or evidence of those state employees’ relationships or dealings with Duke Energy and/or Progress Energy, Carolina Power and Light, or any other entity now operating under the Duke Energy umbrella. The information sought includes evidence of any “item of value” exchanged between the parties whether tangible or intangible, as well as all documents related to communication between the parties, contracts, payments made in either direction, or promise of future employment. Included in the subpoena list are two employees of the Winston-Salem office of DENR – Sherri Knight, aquifer protection supervisor, and Corey Basinger, surface water protection supervisor, who were part of the team from that office who responded to the Dan River spill and would have been responsible for direct oversight of that location.

This news of the expansion of the Federal investigation into not only the recent spill but the relationship between regulators and Duke Energy follows news of yet another broken pipe leaking into the Dan River. Late Tuesday afternoon, NC DENR ordered Duke Energy to immediately stop the discharge from a 2nd leak occurring at their Dan River Steam Plant location. The leaking 36-inch storm water pipe lies beneath the same coal ash basin where the 48-inch pipe failed on February 2, causing thousands of tons of coal ash to be discharged into the Dan River. No information has been provided as to whether or not coal ash is being discharged from the new leak, or if the discharge is water contaminated by the highly toxic ash.

DENR staff issued the order to Duke Energy Tuesday afternoon after initial tests conducted by the state agency indicated the presence of elevated levels of arsenic, which are reported to be 14 times the amount safe for human contact. Elevated levels of arsenic are one of the key indicators of the presence of coal ash.

leaking coal ash basin - photo DENR
leaking coal ash basin – photo DENR

“Given what we’ve seen, we’re concerned that this second stormwater pipe on site may also be leaking water contaminated with coal ash pollutants into the Dan River,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “As such, we are ordering Duke Energy to eliminate this unauthorized discharge immediately.”

The second, 36-inch stormwater pipe came to DENR’s attention during its investigation of the initial spill. On February 13, a review of a video taken from inside the second pipe revealed that the 36-inch pipe had the potential to release ash material in a manner similar to the first incident with the 48-inch pipe. A letter dated the next day from State Dam Safety Engineer Steven McEvoy to Duke Energy stated that “infiltration was occurring through a number of joints,” marked as “dripper” and “runner” on the video, and that three joints had “water jets from pressurized infiltration” which were termed “gusher” in the video. Additionally the video showed separation in one joint near the outfall as well as ponding water indicating irregular alignment of the pipe sections. Interestingly, the concrete inside the pipe is heavily stained around the leaks, indicating that the contamination is not likely new.

Friday afternoon, after the letter had been sent to Duke Energy, DENR began conducting water quality sampling where stormwater enters the pipe and where the pipe discharges into the Dan River. Results from those samples showed that the water taken from the pipe before it goes under the coal ash basin did not have any of contamination seen in the samples taken from the pipe on the other end, suggesting the contamination is occurring through the leaks and gaps shown in the video.

After the test results came back showing contamination, DENR issued an order to Duke to immediately stop the unauthorized discharge, overriding the 10 days their letter had previously provided for the design of a plan and schedule to fix the leaking pipe.

“We’re concerned about the leaks we see in the 36-inch pipe and want to prevent a second pipe failure,” said Tracy Davis, director of the N.C. Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.

After the letter about the video to Duke Energy went public, the AP reported that Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan quickly issued a statement, downplaying the risk. “After reviewing the videotape, we determined that no immediate action was necessary,” it said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have confirmed a massive pile of coal ash about 75 feet long and as much as five feet deep is in the river near the site of the spill. Coal ash deposits varying from one to five inches deep have been found along the river bottom from the site of the spill in Eden, NC, through Virginia and into Kerr Lake, a reservoir fed by the Dan which straddles the NC/VA border.

Federal authorities expressed concern for what long-term effect the contaminants will have on fish, mussels and other aquatic life.

“The deposits vary with the river characteristics, but the short- and long-term physical and chemical impacts from the ash will need to be investigated more thoroughly,” said Tom Augspurger, a contaminants specialist with the federal wildlife agency. These concerns are especially associated with mussels, fish, and small animals like worms and clams which live in sediments of rivers and lakes. The Dan River system in North Carolina and Virginia is home to two endangered species and another which is being evaluated for the federal protection.

After last week’s snowfall, the EPA has warned that the heavy water flow could push the coal ash even further down the river. The NC DENR has started sampling water quality at the upper end of the John H. Kerr Reservoir in Virginia as part of the state agency’s ongoing response. The Kerr site, which is east of South Boston, Va., is roughly 80 river miles from the site of the coal ash spill in Eden. Gray ash has been seen on the surface of the Dan River just before the headwaters of Kerr Lake.

Including the Kerr reservoir, DENR is now sampling water quality at five locations – one upstream and four downstream of the coal ash spill. The agency is also sampling sediment near the site of the spill in Eden and at a location near Danville.

coal ash basin - photo DENR
coal ash basin – photo DENR

With the contamination of the Dan River continuing and the expansion of the federal investigation into Duke Energy and the state entities overseeing their operations, it appears the environmental and political impacts of this disaster will be far reaching. Whether or not the cost of this disaster will be passed on to the citizens of North Carolina remains to be seen.

“We have paid absolutely no attention to costs, to this point,” said George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs, in response to a legislator’s question about who will pay. “We’re focused on stopping the discharge and initiating the remediation of the river. But when costs do come into play, when we’ve had a chance to determine what those costs are, it’s usually our customers who pay our costs of operation.”

However, Duke Energy’s CEO told the Charlotte Observer customers won’t pay the bill for the cleanup. “We will analyze the financial implications, we’ll work with our insurers and we will be accountable for this,” she said. Duke spokesman Tom Williams later told the paper that “customers will not be accountable for this. Duke Energy will be accountable.”

Duke Energy’s profits rose 58% in the 4th quarter of 2013, bringing their revenue for the year up to $24.6 Billion. Their income rose because of rate increases, and decreased operating and maintenance expenses.


Dan River Coal Ash Release: Description and Timeline Release according to DENR.


dan river basin - photo waterkeeper alliance
dan river basin – photo waterkeeper alliance