News Feature | February 27, 2014

After Coal Ash Debacle, Water Safety A Point Of Confusion

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

coalash
Tom Augspurger, USFWS, taking core sample as EPA's Alan Humphrey documents the ash bar during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill.

Duke Energy's coal ash spill in North Carolina has raised major concerns about drinking water in-state and beyond.

Officials say tap water is now safe to drink, but contradictory information has confused residents. 

"North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced in a statement that the agency made 'an honest mistake' when it reported last Thursday that arsenic levels for all sampling locations on the Dan River were within state standards, when in fact two water samples collected last week did exceed state standards for human health," WBUR reported

In a prior statement, the agency has said that arsenic levels for all sampling locations were within state standards. 

That was not exactly true. In its follow-up announcement, the department said it should have noted "that testing of water samples collected downstream of the Dan River spill found total arsenic levels in two samples collected Monday did exceed state standards for human health, which is 10 micrograms per liter," the later statement said. 

The problems began on Feb. 2, "when millions of gallons of sludge from a retired coal-fired power plant poured into" North Carolina's Dan River, the Christian Science Monitor reported. "Officials report that water from the river is safe to drink, but environmentalists "aren't so sure." 

Some environmentalists are conducting their own tests, the report said. The health of the river is in dispute, as well. 

"Environmentalists and the nation's largest electric utility Duke Energy seem to describe two different rivers in the wake of the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The Dan River is either recovering just fine or it has been poisoned by pollution from toxic heavy metals that will last for years," the Los Angeles Times reported

The cleanup has only just begun. The first step was stopping the spill. 

"It took nearly a week to stem the spill, which sent millions of gallons of sludge from a retired power plant into a river that supplies drinking water to communities in North Carolina and neighboring Virginia," CNN reported

What is Duke Energy doing about the river water? 

The company announced that "it plans to begin dredging coal ash out of a North Carolina river as the state's environmental agency moved to scuttle a previously proposed settlement with the company over pollution leaking from waste dumps at its power plants," NBC News reported

It also apologized. "Duke executive George Everett told state lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission that he is sorry and the utility accepts responsibility," NBC Charlotte reported

"The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles," according to the Associated Press.

The Dan River incident became public on February 3. That's a day "after Duke officials had been alerted that a pipe beneath a coal ash storage pit of nearly 30 acres had ruptured," Mother Jones noted.  

Image credit: "Sampling at coal ash spill on the Dan River," © 2014 USFWS/Southeast, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

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