Green Right Now Reports

There’s little doubt that the massive spill of coal ash into the Dan River that began Sunday and has continued intermittently this week released serious contaminants into this water source used by cities downstream.

Duke Energy, owner of the pipeline that cracked open spilling more than 80,000 tons of stored toxic coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water, has admitted that the accident spewed a brew of dangerous chemicals.

Among the most concerning of those compounds are toxic metals, such as arsenic.

Dan River, coal ash sludge 2014.02.06 WKA Dan River (61 of 67)

The coal ash spill left a grayish scum on the Dan River. (Photo: Waterkeeper)

On Thursday, Duke and state officials with the North Carolina Department of the Environment, issued reports that water sampling shows the levels of the arsenic and other toxics were sufficiently being diluted in the river.

State tests for several water quality parameters, “including 17 metals, show no violations of state water quality standards for most samples taken Monday and Tuesday near the site of the coal ash spill in Eden,” the NCDENR reported.

The state sampling of water was taken upstream and, according to news reports, about two miles downstream of the spill.

In addition, a safety check of water exiting the water treatment plant at Danville, about 20 miles downstream, indicated that water treatment was working to cleanse the water of contaminants, officials said.

The Waterkeeper Alliance, however, didn’t come to such a happy conclusion. Testing the water on Tuesday, albeit within feet of where the spill enters the river instead of two miles away, found levels that exceed the safe thresholds for the arsenic and other compounds.

Waterkeeper reported its findings Friday:

“A certified laboratory analysis of Waterkeeper’s samples, completed today, reveals that the water immediately downstream of Duke Energy’s ash spill is contaminated with extremely high levels of arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals typically found in coal ash.”

Waterkeeper compared water upstream of the spill, which could be assumed to be unaffected, with water immediately downstream of the spill, and found that arsenic levels there were 30 times higher; chromium was 27 times higher and lead levels were 13 times higher.

Arsenic, to take just one of those toxic metals, is considered safe only at a 10 parts per billion or less, according to the EPA. That’s because arsenic is extremely detrimental to human health. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause paralysis or blindness; lesser or longterm exposure has been linked to cancers of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate, according to the EPA.

According to Waterkeeper, the lethal metals contained in the coal ash spill are virtually certain to kill life within the river.

Arsenic is a toxic metal commonly found in coal ash and is lethal in high concentrations. The .349 mg/L concentration found in Waterkeeper’s sample is greater than EPA’s water quality criterion for protection of fish and wildlife from acute risks of injury or death. It is more than twice as high as EPA’s chronic exposure criterion for fish and wildlife, and is almost 35 times greater than the maximum contaminant level (MCL) standard that EPA considers acceptable in drinking water.

The watchdog group also noted that the heavy metals released into the river tend to persist in the river and remain in the food chain.

“They will stay in the river, in its sediment, and in the bodies of fish and other animals for a long time to come,” the group noted in a statement Friday.

For the record, the NCDENR did not say that the Dan River is completely in the clear. The  department is awaiting the results of further tests on metals to determine the levels of boron, titanium, vanadium, iron, cobalt, beryllium, strontium and more in the river, which flows near the border of North Carolina and into Virginia, where it’s tapped by municipalities.

Dan River sign irony

Sign irony (Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance)

In addition, the NCDENR will be looking at fallout from the spill that might have settled on the river bottom.

“The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “We continue to monitor the situation and are especially concerned about the deposition of coal ash residuals in the sediments underlying the Dan River and how that could affect the long-term health of the river.”

Waterkeeper chided the state, however, for not getting test results published more quickly.

“The fact that four days after the spill the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources has been unable to obtain heavy metals water test results is inexcusable,” said Waterkeeper Alliance Staff Attorney, Peter Harrison. “It’s an abject failure of government to do it’s job of protecting the public when citizen groups are able to obtain water quality data faster than regulators- even when state officials waited more than 24 hours to alert the public to the spill.”

Duke, meanwhile, has said it will continue to share its sampling tests with the NCDENR and the US EPA. It reported Friday that crews are making progress in slowing the leak from the buried broken pipe, and containing the attached waste coal ash ponds. Workers are diverting coal ash into a catch basin, Duke reported.

“Overnight, crews used pumps to move the ash basin water that was pooling around the break in the stormwater pipe into a secondary pond,” said Paul Newton, Duke Energy president – North Carolina. “Today crews nearly completed a temporary ramp into the ash basin to the area where they will work to permanently seal the pipe. That work continues overnight.”