Coal Ash: Update on an Environmental Catastrophe

Coal ash spill site

Work at Dan River coal ash spill site. (February 28 picture)

On February 2, 2014, a drainage pipe running unaccountably under a coal ash pond at a retired Duke Energy plant ruptured. It spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River at Eden, North Carolina. It is the third largest coal ash spill in US history.

To put it into perspective, the largest occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kinston, Tennessee plant in 2008. That emptied more than one billion gallons of wastewater into the Emory River. And so as catastrophes go, the Dan River spill doesn’t amount to much. Yet ash traveled some 70 miles downstream and coated the banks with a gray sludge.

What is the condition of the river and possible long-term hazards? What’s happening to clean it up? And what are we as a society likely to learn from it?

The condition of the river today

Dan River, Danville, 2010

View of the Dan River in downtown Danville, 2010

To the untrained eye, the river looks normal. The spill never threatened drinking water supplies. The water is not caustic or obviously nasty. So far, there is no documented link between the spill and the death of any wildlife.

A 40-day study determined that the water was safe for agricultural use, both irrigating crops and providing drinking water for animals.

By the time the study was completed, the concentration of metals in the water had dropped sharply from levels measured immediately after the spill.

So all is well? Hardly.

For one thing, farmers must be careful to pump water only from the river’s surface. And stormy weather will roil the river, pulling ash deposits from the bottom and moving them further downstream.

Inspectors have found several deposits of coal ash. By far the largest is near the Schoolfield Dam in Danville, Virginia, the first downstream dam. It amounts to 2500 tons of ash, or 6-8% of the entire spill. The deposit nearest the spill site, which has now been cleaned, was only 19 tons.

Ken Rhame, the EPA on-scene coordinator, reports that fewer than 25 submerged pockets of coal ash have been found. So far, only the Schoolfield Dam deposit has been approved for dredging.

Some deposits will not be removed because they are in parts of the river where they’re unlikely to cause harm. Others will not be cleaned because the process will do more harm than good in those locations.

What became of all the rest of the ash?

Much of it remains suspended in the water. It will eventually flow into the John Kerr Reservoir, 70 miles downstream. Still more has mixed with the ordinary sediment in the river bottom in small but widespread amounts.  Some of it has been covered by as much as 4 inches of sediment.

As the ash moves downstream, it will settle into slower moving eddies around rocks or other obstacles. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where fish congregate to feed and breed. The most immediate danger, therefore, is that concentrations of heavy metals will deform fish and get passed up the food chain.

It could take decades for the river to clean itself—if it ever does.

What is Duke Energy doing about the ash?

Schoolfield Dam, site of coal ash deposit in Danville, Virginia

Schoolfield Dam, Danville, Virginia

Cleanup at the Schoolfield Dam began in mid-May and is expected to take six weeks to complete. That deposit is a foot thick, 20 yards wide, and more than 400 yards long.

Rather than simply scooping the ash from the river bottom, the common dredging technique, Duke Energy is using something more like a vacuum cleaner. The sweeper is six feet wide.

It pulls up the muck and conveys it to dry land through a long pipe. That dry land is Abreu-Grogan Park, commandeered to serve as cleanup headquarters. The pipe first discharges waste into four vibrating bins to screen out the larger debris. From there contaminated water moves to a clarifying tank, where particles settle to the bottom.

The clean water is skimmed off the top and returned to the river. The remaining polluted water goes through two more machines that add polymers and squeeze out water.

The EPA and Duke Energy have agreed that the dried out remains will go to the Upper Piedmont Landfill near Rougemont, North Carolina in Person County. County officials don’t like the idea, but there’s not much they can do about it.

The landfill is privately owned. It will not treat the ash any differently than it treats ordinary household waste.

Lest anyone find that decision offensive, coal ash is not currently considered a hazardous waste. And truth to tell, many Americans are careless about what they put in the trash. Household waste is hardly without its own hazards once everyone’s chemical discards become commingled in the landfill.

Environmentalist are basically pleased with the agreement. Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, notes two important decisions. By sending the ash to a landfill, the agreement accomplishes what the Center has advocated for two years.

And it invokes the Superfund law, which governs cleanup of hazardous waste sites. That signals that the EPA might soon reclassify coal ash as hazardous and require special handling for it.

The agreement, however, is limited in scope. It covers only ash cleaned from the river. It does not deal with ash remaining in the ponds at the Eden site, let alone Duke Energy’s 32 other ash ponds at 13 active and retired coal-fired facilities.

Some environmentalists worry that the agreement will shield Duke Energy from lawsuits that might have been brought by various public interest groups. It does not shield the company from property damage lawsuits or indeed from a suit filed by its own shareholders.

Lessons learned?

NC Utilities Commission logoIt seems that every time a man-made chemical spill of some kind causes sudden and massive pollution, people wonder what we can do to make sure it never happens again.

But of course, it always does. “We have met the enemy,” as a couple of Pogo cartoons remind us, “and they is us.”

My first article about the Dan River describes decades of regulatory bungling. The North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) was charged with regulating ash ponds and dams only in 2010.

Before that, it was the response of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Its primary duty is to set rates and supervise service of not only electric companies, but all utilities. It had no expertise in ash pond engineering, so it relied on DENR to interpret periodic inspection reports, required every five years beginning in 1976.

The Utilities Commission never provided any funding to DENR for the purpose. And so DENR seldom gave the reports very careful scrutiny. When the legislature passed regulatory responsibility to the department, it already regulated the state’s 3,650 dams.

Apparently the additional 33 dams at ash ponds did not seem especially urgent. Oversight did not improve.

Meanwhile, the field inspectors who visited the Eden plant did not receive inspection reports about the pipe. It was neither on their list of what to check nor on the topographical map of the area. They must have seen the outflow of the pipes, but the paperwork in their possession gave them no reason to pay much attention.

In hindsight, the entire regulatory process seems shortsighted and careless. How many other kinds of disasters that have not yet happened are regulated as carelessly? Probably quite a few. We’ll learn of most, if not all of them only in hindsight.

I am struck by the lack of curiosity not only of regulators, but also corporate employees on site. Even general public shares a surprising lack of curiosity. Residents of Eden had packed a meeting sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency about the spill and voiced their concerns two weeks after it happened.

On May 12, Duke Energy and the City of Eden sponsored another community meeting, this time to discuss cleanup plans. Hardly anyone attended.

Source: Articles in the Greensboro News & Record

Photo credits:
Coal ash spill site. Some rights reserved by NC Dept. of Energy and Natural Resources. (I could find no usable pictures of the work in Danville.)
Dan River in Danville. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Schoolfield Dam. Found on Pinterest without date or attribution.


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