by Billy Ball
On Monday, Sen. Stan Bingham, a seven-term Republican lawmaker from Davidson County, thanked a Duke Energy executive for the energy giant's "pro-active" response to the ongoing controversy over its coal ash spill in the Rockingham County city of Eden.
Not everyone at Monday's session of the N.C. General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission was so forgiving, just over two weeks after Duke apparently dumped more than 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, which provides drinking water for neighboring towns in North Carolina and Virginia.
"This legislature and the people of this state have no reason to rely upon what Duke Energy tells you about coal ash in this state," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in water quality regulation.
Duke Energy estimates of the amount of coal ash spilled in the Dan River have varied between 30,000 to 82,000 tons, the result of a ruptured metal pipe at the Rockingham County site on Feb. 2. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal energy plants, most of which Duke Energy has retired in North Carolina. The Eden plant was retired in 2012, and environmental groups have been pushing the energy company to offer a plan for disposing of the leftover ash.
Coal ash ponds have long been a source of environmental concern in this state. Environmental groups say the energy company has been using unlined, leaky ponds to store the ash, which contains potentially harmful heavy metals such as arsenic.
George Everett, Duke's director of environmental and legislative affairs, said the company has been readying plans to safely empty the ponds, although he offered no clear timeline on the subject Monday.
Tom Reeder, director of DENR's Division of Water Quality, said initial samples taken from the Dan River following the Feb. 2 spill exceeded safe standards for arsenic, aluminum, copper and iron, but waned in the days after. However, Reeder said concerns remain about the deposition of heavy metals settling into the river bottom, which will kill some aquatic life.
"Our biggest job ahead of us is trying to return the Dan River to what it was like before Feb. 2," Reeder said.
The Duke Energy spill was not the only environmental headache discussed at Monday's lengthy committee meeting. Reeder and local government officials also explained how a Burlington sewer leak on Jan. 27 dumped about 4 million gallons of untreated liquid sewage into the adjacent Haw River, which feeds into the water supply for about 300,000 Triangle residents.
A force main used to pump sewage uphill to the wastewater treatment plant failed, causing the sewage to back up and eventually spill out of manholes and into the Haw River.
The spill, which Reeder ranked in the top 50 of North Carolina's sewer spills, was stopped two days later, but prompted additional questions about why Burlington officials failed to publicly disclose the spill in a press release within the 48 hour timeframe required by state law.
"That wasn't Burlington's fault. That was our fault," said Reeder. Reeder said an on-site DENR section chief made an unauthorized decision to allow city sewer chiefs more time before making a public statement. According to Reeder, the section chief wanted to give the city more time to calculate the amount of sewage that had been spilled.
Check back in Wednesday's INDY for a full recap of North Carolina's sewage mishaps.