Arsenic Could Have Been Poisoning River Before North Carolina Coal Ash Leak, Say Officials

More than two weeks after a stormwater pipe burst caused 82,000 tons of coal ash to spill into a North Carolina river that supplies drinking water, state officials have discovered that a second pipe is leaking water with elevated amounts of arsenic — and they’re not sure how long it has been happening.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on Tuesday ordered Duke Energy, the company responsible for the spill, to immediately halt discharges from another leaking 36-inch stormwater pipe beneath an unlined coal ash pond at a decommissioned power plant in Eden, North Carolina. The agency discovered the second spill after requesting video recordings of the inside of Duke’s other stormwater pipes from the former plant.

“When we learned there was a second pipe, we recognized there was a potential for leaks there,” DENR spokesperson Jamie Kritzer told ThinkProgress. “Duke had been running their own video [through the stormwater pipes] prior to us saying anything about it, but we asked for a copy of it.”

DENR officials asked for Duke’s copy of video on Feb 11, five days after Duke voluntarily began monitoring their pipes with video cameras, and nine days after the first spill. After reviewing the video, the agency discovered multiple leaks, most of which were at the joints of the pipes. The agency had staff conduct water quality sampling — both at the spot where the pipe collects stormwater, and where it discharges into the Dan River.

The water samples, received Tuesday, showed “very high” levels of arsenic, according to Kritzer. Arsenic is a key ingredient of coal ash — a toxic waste byproduct from burning coal, usually stored with water in large ponds.

“To say we’re not sure how long it had been discharging, that is accurate. We are not sure,” Kritzer said.

“We’re just very grateful that one of our folks asked for that video and took the initiative [to test the water], because it made a huge difference,” Bridget Munger, another DENR spokesperson, said.

A spokesperson at Duke Energy did not immediately return a request for comment. But Kritzer said that, as of Wednesday morning, the company had contained 90 percent of the arsenic-laced water coming from the leaking pipe.

“They are working towards a solution to fully containing it,” he said, adding that the agency is unsure just how much water was leaking from the pipe. “Our number one goal is to get the leak stopped.”

The closest community at risk from the spill is Danville, Virginia, which takes its water from the Dan River about six miles downstream of the pond. No water quality issues have been reported so far, but officials from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are looking into the overall health of the river following both the initial coal ash spill and the second leak discovered Tuesday.

“With a spill of this kind, it’s unclear what kind of impact there will be over time,” DEQ spokesperson Bill Hayden told ThinkProgress. “But our goal is to take a look at the long-term health of the river, and it’s going to take a while to do that.”

For now, the DENR is conducting sediment and water quality sampling in the river, and is planning on conducting fish tissue sampling to determine the impacts on aquatic life. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials on Tuesday said they were concerned about the long-term environmental impacts of the spill on fish and other aquatic life, noting that coal ash’s byproducts — mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxins — can bury aquatic life in the river and clog the gills of mussels and fish. The Dan River is home to two endangered aquatic species: the Roanoke logperch and the James spinymussel.

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