Thursday, February 13, 2014

UPDATE: Criminal investigation launched in coal ash spill: Environmental group claims new source of Dan River pollution

UPDATE: Criminal investigation launched in coal ash spill

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 2:05 pm
 Associated Press |
RALEIGH, N.C. — Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into a massive coal ash spill into a North Carolina river, demanding that Duke Energy and state regulators hand over reams of documents related to the accident that left a waterway polluted with tons of toxic sludge.

  The U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh issued grand jury subpoenas seeking records from Duke and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The subpoenas seek emails, memos and reports related to the Feb. 2 spill into the Dan River and the state's oversight of the company's 30 other coal ash dumps.

  The Associated Press obtained a copy on Thursday of the subpoena issued to the state.

"An official criminal investigation of a suspected felony is being conducted by an agency of the United States and a federal grand jury," said the subpoena, dated Monday.

The exact crime and precisely who is being targeted for potential prosecution is not spelled out in the document.

A Duke spokesman confirmed the nation's largest electricity provider had also received a subpoena.  Thomas Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said he could not comment on the subpoenas.

The spill at a Duke Energy plant in Eden spewed enough toxic sludge to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools, turning the river water a milky gray for miles. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

State health officials have advised that people not eat fish from the river and to avoid contact with the water.

Prosecutors ordered the state environmental agency's chief lawyer to testify next month before a grand jury. Agency spokesman Drew Elliot said the state will fully cooperate with the federal investigation.

Duke Energy spokesman Thomas Williams said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation but said officials would cooperate with any investigation.

The subpoenas were issued the day after the AP reported that environmental groups have tried three times in the past year to sue under the Clean Water Act to force Duke to clear out leaky coal ash dumps.

The groups sued after North Carolina regulators failed to act on evidence that conservationists said showed groundwater contamination.

Each time, the state agency blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the act to take enforcement action in state court. After negotiating with the company, the state proposed settlements that environmentalists regarded as highly favorable to the company.

Duke, a company valued at $50 billion, would have paid fines of $99,111 for groundwater pollution leaching from two coal dumps like the one that ruptured last week. The settlement would have required Duke to study how to stop the contamination, but it included no requirement to clean up the dumps near Asheville and Charlotte.

Among the documents targeted by the federal subpoenas are the correspondence between Duke and the state environmental agency related to the proposed deal highlighted in the AP's story. On Monday, lawyers for the state asked a judge to disregard the agency's own proposed settlement in the wake of the spill.

The criminal investigation is a serious new development, said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, the group that had tried to sue Duke under the Clean Water Act.

After the SELC's third attempt, the state also filed enforcement actions for all of Duke's remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina, which effectively blocks environmentalists from pursuing action against them under the Clean Water Act.

"The state stated under oath in August that Duke was violating the Clean Water laws because of its unpermitted discharges of pollution from the coal ash lagoons into the Dan River. That was six months before this spill," he said.

Yet during that time, the state did nothing to stop Duke from polluting the river, Holleman said.
He said he hopes investigators press regulators on why they didn't take action.

"If anything proves that this is a very serious situation, this subpoena and this grand jury do it," he said. "To date, if this doesn't get Duke's attention and if this doesn't get DENR's attention, what will?"
Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 12:16 pm
Duke Energy reports wastewater spill


Duke Energy says there was an unpermitted discharge of wastewater into the Dan River from the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C, but stressed coal ash was not involved.
  The discharge earlier this week was water from plant drains and treated wastewater, according to a news release from Duke Energy.

The water was from drains from the retired plant and treated domestic wastewater; it did not contain coal ash or any coal residuals, the news release stated.

A new piping system was put in service Sunday, Lisa Hoffmann of Duke Energy said Thursday.

The new system was in response to the coal ash spill Feb. 2 to reroute some of the pipes, Hoffmann said.

“Site personnel identified an opening in the pipe system near the retired coal plant the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 11.” Hoffmann via email.

 “This opening allowed a small volume of water to intermittently return to the Dan River until the flow was stopped Tuesday afternoon.”

It the discharge was estimated at less than 1,000 gallons and does not pose any health or environmental concern in the river, according to Duke Energy.

“We would not be able to detect such a small amount of discharge entering the river,” said Barry Dunkley, division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities.
Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 8:44 am
What happens when the river floods?


In the days ahead, the snow will melt, and the resulting water could bring the Dan River high enough to flood its banks, burying parts of the Riverwalk Trail and running up on lawns and farmland.
  City Manager Joe King said he has already been questioning the possible effects of coal ash deposited on the Riverwalk Trail and other property, but have not yet received a “definitive answer” on what efforts it will take to remove potential coal ash deposits.
  King said he met with officials from the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representatives before the EPA’s community forum Tuesday night and asked those questions.

King said since coal ash isn’t officially considered a “hazardous material, we’re presuming that with simple precautions we can just scoop it up and get rid of it like the dirt and sand that usually washes up on the trail,” but hasn’t be able to get that confirmed by any of the federal or state agencies responding to the spill.

Westover District Supervisor Coy Harville, who owns property in the Riverbend area, five miles upstream from Abreu-Grogan Park, said he has the same concerns.

In prior floods, Harville said, he’s had “two bulldozers working seven days a week pushing sand back to the shore,” but doesn’t know whether that will be safe now.

Harville said he would like to see the EPA taking samples of not just the river water and sediment, but to be collecting samples from the land along the river, so that the condition it is in now could be compared to land after any flooding in the future.

“Look at Camilla Williams Park; it floods there and children play there, geese and other wildlife are there,” Harville said. “We need to know what to do.”

Calls to the EPA were not returned Wednesday in time for an early deadline caused by the snowstorm.
Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 8:41 am
Resident reports dead turtles, missing wildlife


Morris Lawson is not happy with response to the coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s closed Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.
  On Tuesday, Lawson was shocked to find dead turtles at Abreu-Grogan Park and assumes they were trying to escape coal ash that was interfering with their hibernation.
  “This time of year, they bury themselves in the banks,” Lawson said. “I don’t think they’d have come up this time of year for any other reason; you usually don’t see them until mid-April.”

Lawson said he would like to know if what’s in the coal ask killed them or if they were simply trying to get away from the coal ash and the weather was too cold for them.

“Maybe they froze to death,” Lawson said.

At the community meeting held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday night, Sara Ward, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, told the crowd that no fish kills had yet been found or reported.

Ward said the FWS will be checking into “sensitive resources” in the Dan River, such as endangered fish and mussels.

When asked by another resident about turtles, Ward said she had not heard of any deaths. There were some gasps from the attendees when that resident held up a jar with a dead turtle inside.

Ward said the agency would work on setting up a hotline so residents could report locations where dead fish and wildlife are seen, but as of Wednesday no information about a hotline was posted on the FWS’s website.

Lawson said he sees the coal ash spill as the end of fishing in the Dan River for a long time to come.

“Call me a river rat; I’ve been fishing it since I was a kid,” Lawson said, who said he is on the river at least four days a week and walking the Riverwalk Trail the other days. “This is going to kill everything hibernating and I’m not seeing any deer, otter or beaver; I’m not even seeing minnows.

It’s all gone.”

Lawson said the Dan River brings people to the area to compete in fishing tournaments, and to fish for big catfish that are plentiful. That, he fears, is over.

“I bought a $20,000 boat two years ago to fish this river,” Lawson said. “Now I’ll have to go somewhere else. It’s a hell of a blow to me.”
Thibodeau reports for the Danville Register & Bee.
Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 8:23 am
Environmental group claims new source of Dan River pollution

By Taft Wireback (Greensboro, N.C.) News &

An environmental group and Duke Energy have differing views on the likelihood that a still-flowing drainage pipe at Duke’s Dan River plant has continued to send coal-ash pollution into the river.
  Tests of water at the drainage pipe just upstream from Duke Energy’s Feb. 2 coal ash spill show wastewater that’s “extremely toxic and it has all the telltale pollutants of coal ash,” said Peter Harrison, staff attorney for the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance.
  “It has signature pollutants in it for coal ash; arsenic, manganese, boron, chromium, calcium, zinc, iron and suspended solids,” Harrison said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

But Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said that the upstream drainage pipe does not handle storm water from the coal ash basin that leaked massively into the river through another pipe, which broke beneath the storage basin two Sundays ago.

“It is a storm drain with water from a different part of the plant (not the ash basin),” Brooks said in an email. “... but we and the EPA are testing to ensure water quality.”

The accident earlier this month near Duke Energy’s Dan River plant leaked millions of gallons of contaminated water into the river. Duke officials said they stopped the leak Feb. 8 after plug-ging it with concrete.

The ash basin holds accumulated waste from a coal-fired plant that was shuttered and re-placed by a natural-gas facility

The Dan continues flowing into Virginia through Danville and other communities before flowing back into North Carolina.

Danville draws drinking water from the Dan, and both city and Virginia water-quality officials assured residents that treated tap water from the river is safe to drink.

Harrison of the Waterkeeper group broached the possibility of an additional, continuing source of pollution from the Eden power plant during a public meeting on cleanup efforts Tuesday evening in Danville, hosted by the EPA.

He said that he boated past Duke Energy’s coal ash basin next to the river “four times on four different days,” and each time noticed the pipe discharging significant amounts of water across oddly colored “orangeish red” rocks that felt slimy.

The pipe is located at the upstream edge of the coal ash basin that leaked through the other downstream pipe, he said. EPA officials said Tuesday evening they would look into the issue.
Results from the Waterkeeper samples gathered Feb. 6 and tested by a laboratory were re-turned Wednesday afternoon, Harrison said.

He said his attention was drawn to the drainage pipe last week by the odd color and texture of the rocks, a chemical feature scientists associate with an “iron-oxydizing bacteria” possibly linked to the presence of coal ash.

Duke Energy acknowledged the presence of iron in water from the pipe, but not the link to coal ash.

“We believe the discoloration is from iron deposition that is naturally occurring,” Duke offi-cial Joanie Cooke said in an email.

EPA investigators share that assumption and collected “both surface water and sediment samples to verify their conclusions,” said Corey Basinger, Triad regional supervisor for the state Division of Water Quality.

Staff writer Amanda Lehmert contributed to this report.
Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 and follow @TaftWireback on Twitter.

Latest developments
Also Wednesday:
n Duke Energy downgraded its estimate of how much coal ash had been released in the initial incident, dropping it from an initial range of 50,000 to 82,000 tons to 30,000 to 39,000 tons. A new assessment shows the spill drained “less than four percent of the total ash held in the ba-sin,” the company said.
The initial, higher amount came from a “visual estimate,” Duke said.
“Since then, surveyors have used advanced land survey methods to refine their original calculation,” Duke spokeswoman Lisa Hoffman said.

n Contractors spent a few hours vacuuming some of the coal ash from the river bottom before the work was called off because of the winter weather, Duke officials said.

The crews are working on a 25-foot by 75-foot section of the river next to the broken storm-water pipe that started the problem, an area where EPA officials say the coal ash is six feet deep.

The ash is being sucked up from the river bed into a specially designed truck, Duke said. The rehabilitation work is limited to that part of the river; it’s unclear what other cleanup work Duke may be required to do by environmental regulators.

n The Department of Health and Human Services urged people to avoid contact with the river near the spill and to not eat fish near the spill.

n State environmental officials released results of their own tests that found improved water quality in the Dan at two spots downstream from the spill, Draper Landing and the Virginia line. The tests showed arsenic levels in the two samples well within safety limits for both human contact and aquatic life, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said.

The new surface-water tests also found levels of copper continuing to decline to safe levels, while readings of aluminum and iron remained “above state surface water standards,” the agency said.