While North Carolina environmental regulators have been downplaying the risks posed by Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill, U.S. officials said Tuesday that the highly toxic coal ash has coated the bottom of the Dan River up to 70 miles downstream of the spill site.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that near Duke Energy’s Dan River facility, the toxic sludge has formed a giant pile 75 feet long and 5 feet deep.
More than 82,000 tons of coal ash containing arsenic, heavy metals, and other toxins flowed into the Dan River Feb. 2 from a 27-acre ash pond at the Duke Energy plant. The sludge, enough to fill 32 Olympic-size swimming pools, has created deposits from less than one inch to five inches deep on the river bottom farther away in Virginia and in Kerr Lake, a major reservoir.
Conservation groups have sued Duke Energy three times in the past year in an effort to force the company to clear out its 31 coal ash dumps throughout the state, some of which have leaked or continue to leak. The plaintiffs took legal action after state regulators failed to act on evidence provided by conservationists of groundwater contamination caused by Duke’s toxic sludge ponds, including high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals and toxins.
However, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked the citizen lawsuits each time at the last minute, using state laws to preempt the U.S. Clean Water Act and then proposing settlements that were beneficial to Duke and essentially meaningless to conservation and cleanup efforts.
N.C. environmental officials also downplayed the potential hazards of Duke’s Dan River spill, telling the public that levels of coal ash toxins such as lead and arsenic in the river were below the maximum considered safe. Later, however, the agency said it had misinterpreted test results and warned people to avoid prolonged contact with water from the spill-affected areas.
Recent snowfall that is now melting and entering the river threatens to push the coal ash even farther downstream, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said.
Federal authorities expressed concern about the long-term effects the hazardous waste will have on fish, mussels and other aquatic life. Loss of benthic invertebrates such as the clams, worms, and crustaceans that dwell in river sediment and lake beds but are now buried under toxic sludge could have adverse effects further up the food chain. Authorities are currently investigating whether some aquatic turtle deaths in two Virginia lakes are linked to the Duke Energy pollution.
Moreover, as the Associated Press reports, two federally listed endangered species – the Roanoke logperch fish and the James spiny mussel – call North Carolina’s Dan River system home. A freshwater mussel called the green floater that lives in the Dan River is also being evaluated for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Duke Energy said last week that it plans to dredge the coal ash out of the river once it has prepared equipment.