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Second North Carolina coal ash spill plugged, but concerns remain

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- A second ruptured stormwater pipe that has been spilling toxic coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia has been sealed,  North Carolina officials announced late Friday.

The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Duke Energy, whose coal ash containment basin in Eden, N.C., is the source of the ash, managed to block the discharge with a concrete plug. The 36-inch pipe has been leaking coal ash since since approximately Feb. 14, spilling arsenic and other heavy metals into the river.

On Feb. 2, a broken 48-inch storm water pipe at the same shuttered Duke coal-fired plant spewed tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. Duke first said the spill was between 50,000 and 82,000 tons, but later reduced the estimate to 30,000 to 39,000 tons.

The environmental agency announced six days later that the 48-inch pipe had been sealed. But the river remains contaminated with coal ash as environmental groups clash with the agency and Duke over the extent of danger to humans and damage to fish, wildlife and the environment.

Municipal water officials in Danville and South Boston, two Virginia towns downstream, have said normal filtering and treatment of water drawn from the Dan have left it safe to drink.

On Monday, the North Carolina environmental agency announced that it was testing water in the John H. Kerr reservoir on the Virginia-North Carolina border after Virginia officials spotted coal ash on the lake surface. The reservoir, 80 miles from the spill site, is fed by the Dan River and other waterways.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the Dan River bottom was coated with coal ash from the Feb. 2 spill site to a point at least 70 miles downstream, threatening fish and mussels. Near the spill, ash lies 5 feet thick in what the wildlife agency described as a "coal ash bar" 75 feet long and 15 feet wide.

On Friday, the state environmental agency reported that its latest tests of river water show that levels of aluminum and iron, two heavy metals, exceed state surface water standards.  The samples, collected Feb. 7, indicate that levels of aluminum and iron continue to drop, the agency said.

"While aluminum and iron are naturally occurring metals in many rivers, state environmental officials remain concerned about the long-term health of the Dan River,’’ the agency said in a statement.

Environmental groups have accused the agency of protecting Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electricity provider, and blocking attempts by environmentalists to sue the utility in federal court and force it to shut down coal ash basins. They say that for years the agency has taken no action to stop the seepage of coal ash from 32 basins at 14 Duke Energy coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

Federal investigators have launched a criminal investigation, issuing subpoenas to the agency and to Duke for records related to the utility's coal ash basins, including the Dan River facility. Both the agency and Duke say they are cooperating with investigators.

The agency disputes the allegations by environmentalists, noting that it sued Duke last summer and proposed fines for coal ash leaks at two Duke plants. The agency has said it is requiring Duke to clean up the Dan River and expects to cite and fine the company after it completes an investigation of the spill.

The agency's director was appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years. The utility gave $1.1 million to McCrory's campaigns or to groups that supported him.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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