BREAKING Update On Dan River Coal Ash Disaster: State Admits to Arsenic Levels
A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE to our report yesterday on the Dan River Coal Ash Disaster affecting North Carolina and Virginia:
As reported by John Downey of The Charlotte Business Journal late last night, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Division of Water Resources has admitted that the arsenic levels their agency originally published on Thursday as falling “within state standards” did, in fact, exceed the standards for human health consumption.
We have been in touch with Tom Reeder, Director of DENR’s Division of Water Resources, whose office just issued a press release.
Within the release, Mr. Reeder notes:
“We made an honest mistake while interpreting the results….the bottom line remains that we are concerned for the long-term health of the Dan River and are working with our state and federal partners and the utility to begin the cleanup. We will continue to test the water in the river as we assess the spill’s impacts and determine the most appropriate ways to clean up the river. We are in this for the long haul.”
I also asked Mr. Reeder’s office for hard copy evidence of their testing, which can be viewed here. From my perspective, there is a nagging question that I believe needs answering, and it is central to the testing being conducted on the Dan in conjunction with this disaster. You will note within today’s press release the following statement:
“When reviewing surface water quality data, the state uses the North Carolina state surface water quality standards per state rules. For the Dan River at and below the spill site in North Carolina, two separate standards have been adopted and are enforced — one standard for aquatic life of 50 micrograms per liter, and one for human health of 10 micrograms per liter.”
My question, as posed to the DENR and Mr. Reeder: are these state rules and “applicable water quality standards” the same standards and rules that have been in place in North Carolina for some time now, or, were they at any time in the last 5-10 years amended in any way?
You can see where I’m going with this.
As of press time today, I had not yet received a response to this question, however, will continue to research it until it is answered.
Other item of note:
Actor and environmentalist Mark Ruffalo, who founded and spearheads Water Defense.org, has told me via Twitter that his organization is conducting their own cumulative testing on-site, which includes testing for VOC‘s as well. Water Defense was on scene and did great work in reporting on West Virginia’s Elk River chemical spill. We will be in touch with Mr. Ruffalo when their Dan River testing is released and will post updates accordingly.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2014:
Big Coal has had a terrible, no good, very bad, awful, and did I say terrible few weeks.
The question: is the water, and are the waterways in and around Eden, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia safe? Is it safe for both the life in and out of the water? What about the long-term health of the river? Are there toxic levels of arsenic?
The answer: depends on who you’re asking. On the heels of the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River, this past Sunday afternoon in Eden, North Carolina, a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant released up to 82,000 tons of coal ash into that river. The ash has co-mingled with approximately 27 million gallons of contaminated water.
What is coal ash? Great question. Best public information available is on the Sierra Club site. See it here.
The Dan River leak was discovered by a lone security guard, who informed the owner of the non-operational plant, Duke Energy, who then scrambled to get hundreds of workers into place to try and plug a hole in the pipe. The pipe sits at the bottom of a 27-acre pond holding the toxic ash. There are at least 14 other such coal ash “storage” sites in North Carolina operated by Duke Energy.
The day after the spill, Monday, February 3, was the first the public heard from Duke Energy regarding the spill. Read portions of their initial press release below.
Here’s what I found out this week, and first, a little background about the big player here, Duke Energy.
Largest energy company in the United States, with proceeds upward of $400 million per quarter.
Infamous for their mountaintop removal. Otherwise notorious polluters.
Current North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory (R), worked for Duke Energy for 28 years; the staff he appointed when elected at the end of 2012 says much of his allegiance to the company.
Duke Energy is currently in litigation concerning all 14 coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
WHAT DUKE ENERGY SAYS ABOUT THE SPILL
They discovered this “mini” disaster all on their own. They are so, so sorry for it and take “full responsibility”.
They are working in concert with Danville Utility to get this under control and keep the public informed.
Yesterday, Duke Energy President of Utility for North Carolina, Paul Newton, shepherded an hour and thirty seven minute question and answer update and press conference. It can be viewed HERE (for all you die-hards).
Among the more important things I picked up from this press conference were:
(a) The pipe that caused the Dan River spill was put into place in 1960. It is corrugated, and, by the company’s own admission, “does not meet current standards”. We can draw our own conclusions as to what that means in terms of the many other of NC’s coal ash storage sites;
(b) They are testing the water every 4-6 hours;
(c) So far, so good, says Duke. The only area of concern is that copper levels are “slightly higher than normal”; The whole copper thing, that’s ok, they say. Because why? Because most people have copper pipes in their homes and are exposed and have grown acclimated to higher levels of copper in any event.
My personal favorite, a direct quote from the press conference:
(d) “Everything we are sampling is safe. I don’t think it’s going to affect recreation or drinking water. When the plume of ash came thru Danville, its water system handled it perfectly.” “I don’t think“…. “When the plume of ash came through”….
WHAT THE LOCAL MUNICIPALITIES SAY
I always like to know if local officials have heard from their Representatives and Senators when something like this is ongoing. Eden, NC City Manager, Brad Corcoran, tells me:
[He has] “not been contacted by any if [sic] these elected officials nor any member of their staffs.”
This is with reference made, specifically, to Rep. George Holding and Senators Kay Hagan (D) and Richard Burr (R). Mr. Corcoran separately wanted to reiterate that:
[The] “discharge is down stream of our water intake.” And that it “had had NO impact on our water quality here in Eden and representatives from Duke Energy have gone out of their way to keep us in the loop”.
In Danville, VA, Public Information Officer, Arnold G. Hendrix, has been extremely generous in his capacity. He forwarded to me Danville Utility’s first press release to the public, dated February 3, that read, in part:
“We were notified Sunday of the spill into the river, and we were able to treat it,” said Barry Dunkley, division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities. “All water leaving our treatment facility has met public health standards. We do not anticipate any problems going forward in treating the water we draw from the Dan River.”
I later asked Mr. Hendrix about the discrepancy between what his office and Duke Energy were reporting, and, the testing conducted by The Waterkeeper Alliance, vis a vis the arsenic levels reported. His response, in part:
“….we found no detectable level of arsenic in the raw water samples we collected on Tuesday from the Dan River at the city’s intake. Those samples were sent to a Virginia certified private lab. We received the results on Thursday. We continue to test daily for the presence of heavy metals in the raw water coming into our treatment plant and the finished water leaving our treatment plant. These water samples also are being sent to a Virginia certified private lab. We will make those results available when we receive them.”
WHAT ENVIRONMENTALIST GROUPS SAY ABOUT THE SPILL
Environmentalists and regulators have for years been telling Duke Energy to (literally) clean up their act.
I asked Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear RiverWatch what he believed to be the most vital piece of information for the public – in NC and VA – to have. Mr. Burdette responded:
“People need to understand that the situation on the Dan River could have been prevented if Duke had done the right thing and cleaned up their coal ash ponds. There is nothing to prevent this from happening again at any of the other 13 coal ash ponds across the state – in fact in 2010 there was a breach on the containment berms at the Duke Energy Sutton Steam Plant in New Hanover County near Wilmington. Fortunately, this spill was relatively small but it makes clear that these ponds are unsafe and prone to failure. The only way to ensure that we do not have more spills like the one on the Dan River is for Duke to clean up their coal ash ponds.”
I also reached out to Donna Lisenby, who is the Global Coal Coordinator for The Waterkeeper Alliance and whose organization was one of the first on the scene after being notified of the Dan River spill. Though Ms. Lisenby was traveling and unavailable for extended comment, I can report that The Waterkeeper Alliance hired a private lab to take samples from the river and that those samples report extremely high levels of arsenic and are in direct contradiction to what Duke Energy says their testing of the water has unearthed.
Both municipalities refer to this spill as a “state” issue. My response to that is: water and air don’t stop at the county border.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are both on the scene, collecting their own samples. As of Friday evening, the EPA was reporting word for word what Duke Energy has said about the testing thus far turning up nothing troubling. These federal agencies have not yet posted data from their own samples, so it is quite literally Duke Energy vs. The Waterkeeper Alliance for the moment.
Given what happened in West Virginia several weeks ago, the lack of meaningful and persistent coverage, the botched clean-up and the snarky, often indifferent state and local government – for example, WV Governor Earl Tomblin became so exasperated at one point that he actually said:
“If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking in this water, then use bottled water. I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
Stunning words from a man West Virginians were looking to for answers and, yes, certainty. Will our children die if they ingest our water? Can we use our water to make meals for our families? To bathe? I don’t know…..you decide, West Virginia.
Given the behavior of companies like Freedom Industries, and in particular given that Freedom Industries has done what so many companies in similar situations have done, which is to retreat into bankruptcy in order to shield itself from liability (they have altogether denied wrongdoing, in fact) – given this massively stacked deck against communities such as Charleston and Eden and Danville, what role, then, does the Federal government play in these disasters?
I’ll give you a quick rundown. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act.
By now, I think we can all recognize how a few key words in a political or faith-based organization’s and yes, even legislation’s title, is a damn good indicator that the organization or legislation means exactly the opposite of what it purports to be or do. Think Americans For Prosperity.
Think also, the aforementioned Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act.
In sum, this law, a signature environmental policy shift enacted by George W. Bush, was a response to the Superfund of 1980, which essentially insisted that industries like Duke Energy and Freedom Industries (see, there’s the “indicator” in the company’s title) pay for their own toxic spills and general pollution. Terrible, right? This act also rebuffed “many of the fundamental principles of the Kyoto treaty” and emphasized……wait for it……self-regulation by business. Additionally, it created a waiver of pollution controls during economic slowdowns. Things that make you go hmmmph. Or, **!***!*!*!*!??
Perhaps a good question is: since we Americans get approximately 40% of our electricity from burning coal, what incentive does our government even have to deal honestly when Big Coal catastrophes do occur? The only ways, it seems to me, that West Virginia’s spill and that of the Dan River are different, is that they occurred in different states on different waterways.
WHAT I SAY ABOUT THE SPILL (FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH)
For one, municipalities usually do not have either the infrastructure or the resources to handle something like this. It is nearly impossible for me to conceive that the water in the Dan River is “fine”.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that at its most basic level, this coal ash settles in the river bed and is going to be there for a very long time. This naturally brings about a pH change in the water that will kill off fish and other wildlife and affect the way people use this waterway.
Further, why are the localities, right out of the gate, aligning themselves with Duke Energy? Well, this is rhetorical. Don’t answer that.
For another, President Obama’s administration has been abominable on the environment – my observation. But this is, itself, along with the proliferation of fracking, Keystone XL, etc, an entirely different thing to discuss. Where is the unwinding of the Bush-Cheney era environmental laws?
Is it that people (corporations, my friend) just don’t really care about the environment until it’s too late? What usually happens, instead, with behemoth companies like Duke, whose entire industries depend on pillaging our lands, is that largely quiet towns full of good people become upended. They promise to bring decent paying jobs, secure jobs with….well, security. They set the hook. Soon, you’ve got scores of hard-working individuals and families – oftentimes turning into generations of fathers and sons, mothers, daughters – toiling at bone crunching work for decades, and then, before they know it, either their industry is on the hot seat, much like Duke Energy has been (for many years), or their health is shot to shit – and the likeliest scenario is that both of these things will happen. And let’s not forget about the lucky families to have purchased a piece of heaven on these beautiful rivers and waterways. A spill like this effectively sets their property value at ZIP. What will Duke Energy do for these people?
In so many ways, this is reminiscent of the bad behavior of BP, pre and post-Gulf disaster. Companies like these take everything these people have, literally. Then they hide their profits. And then, somewhere along the line, they bring in their lawyers, file for bankruptcy and leave towns like Eden and Danville in the worst of all positions. And let’s not forget the long-term health hazards and extremely high rates of cancer and other disease found in areas where coal and petroleum are “the” industries.
So…..once again, here we have corporate welfare. Socialized losses and corporatized profits. Think about what this means for the environment – think about it in the same way as “Too Big To Fail”. We, as the taxpayers, pay for these spills. These companies duck and run and leave us with every bit of the fallout. And woe to the local communities – the true victims – who are left to sort out the practicalities and pick up the pieces of their lives. They are almost never able to fully recover. Is there ever going to be a breaking point in this country? Are we going to continue to let corporations do this to us?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you live outside of North Carolina and Virginia, call or email the EPA and/or Wildlife and Fisheries and insist that they remain involved and get information out to the public on the toxicity of the Dan River – not just continue to report what Duke Energy and Danville Utility have said.
The EPA has now assigned an On-Site Coordinator to oversee the Dan River Spill.
Wildlife and Fisheries (VA division) may be contacted here.
If you reside in one of the affected states, I strongly encourage you to write or call your Representative in the House and your Senators, in particular because they have been all but silent from the outset of the Dan River disaster. Ask them why. Report back in with us if you receive a response.
North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources: Division of Water Resources may be contacted here.
North Carolina – Governor Pat McCrory may be contacted here.
North Carolina – 13th Congressional District – contact Rep. George Holding here.
North Carolina – Senator Kay Hagan may be contacted here.
North Carolina – Senator Richard Burr may be contacted here.
Virginia – Governor Terry McAuliffe may be contacted here.
Virginia – 5th Congressional District – contact Rep. Robert Hurt here.
Virginia – Senator Mark Warner may be contacted here.
Virginia – Senator Jim Webb may be contacted here.
*the author would like to thank our friend on the ground in Wilmington, I. Henderson, for assisting with various stages of this report
featured image credit: Gerry Broome/AP