An inside look at the coal ash cleanup

DANVILLE, Va. (WAVY) – Crews began cleaning up a massive coal ash spill on the Dan River in Danville late last month. Nearly 40,000 tons of toxic sludge went into the river in February through a damaged pipe at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, North Carolina.

WAVY News’ Erin Kelly met with Duke Energy’s Jeff Brooks along the river to discuss the clean up. “We’re going to be using a vacuum to essentially remove the sediment from the top all the way down to the sediment, to the river bottom there and we’ll be working on a barge that will actually move back and forth across the deposit and remove that material using a vacuum,” Brooks said.

PHOTOS: Cleaning up coal ash

The Dan River feeds into the Hampton Roads water supply through Lake Gaston. Thomas Leahy, the director of Public Utilities for Virginia Beach, said Hampton Roads cities immediately stopped pumping from Lake Gaston out of an abundance of caution.

“Under no circumstances, could anything have moved down the river that quickly anyway. It would have taken at least a month, just to get to Lake Gaston,” he said. Leahy said there has been no indication the coal ash ever made it that far, likely because it settled or was diluted. He said he believes it would take a much bigger spill to impact the Hampton Roads water supply.

“We’ve been monitoring this water every day at three locations and the arsenic levels are down almost below our detection levels, and conventional water treatment plants are very efficient at removing arsenic,” Leahy said.

Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Association said environmental groups have been pushing for Duke Energy to clean up other coal ash pits in the area. “As long as those sites are on the river basin, this kind of thing could happen again, and not only would we be affected, it would certainly affect everybody downstream, including Hampton Roads. We’ve come back and asked in a legal intervention for Duke Energy to be required to not only clean up the site at Eden and the impacts of that particular disaster, but also to do some preventative measures,” Lester said.

Document: Motion to Intervene

Brooks said Duke Energy was looking at the other coal ash basins one by one, to find out what to do with them.

When asked how the company would ensure another spill would not happen, Brooks said, “We’ve safely operated coal plants for decades in our service areas and this has obviously been an incident that requires a lot of thoughtful look on the part of Duke Energy, but we’re committed to making sure that we continue to operate our plants safely.”

Norfolk Virginia Beach and Chesapeake will decide together when to resume pumping from the Lake Gaston pipeline. They believe the disaster has proven their water supply system is resilient. Meanwhile, state environmental groups are still looking into any impact on wildlife on the river, which could take years to determine, according to Lester.

A federal grand jury met in March as part of a criminal investigation triggered by the coal ash spill.

Related links:

EPA response to spill:
Sierra Club:
Physicians for Social Responsibility:
American Coal Ash Association.


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