Water Samples Show Disturbing Levels of Heavy Metals from Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill
Today Waterkeeper Alliance and Yadkin Riverkeeper issued the results of water sampling from the Dan River in the wake of the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. 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.
Late Monday afternoon Duke Energy reported that it spilled an estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina, although Duke has not updated the initial spill estimates despite ongoing discharges for the last four days. Several groups have also criticized the state regulators for failing to alert the public of a massive toxic waste release into a drinking water source for at least 24 hours after they claim to have become aware of the spill.
On Feb. 4, Waterkeeper Alliance took water samples from a stretch of the Dan River downstream of the spill located between Eden, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia. [See the map of samples here.]
Coal ash is a waste product from coal combustion and presents a serious threat to aquatic ecosystems and drinking water because it contains heavy metals and other toxic compounds. Laboratory results of Waterkeeper’s samples, also show that, compared to the levels found in a “background” water sample taken upstream of the spill, arsenic levels immediately downstream of the spill are nearly 30 times higher, chromium levels are more than 27 times higher, and lead levels are more than 13 times higher because of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste.
Waterkeeper’s testing found an arsenic concentration in the polluted water immediately below the discharge of .349 mg/L. 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 Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 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.
Waterkeeper Alliance also found a lead concentration in the polluted water of 0.129 mg/L. Lead is another metal commonly found in toxic coal ash. Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays and permanent damage in exposed infants and children, as well as kidney damage and high blood pressure in adults. In very high doses, lead poisoning can cause death. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, lead poisoning in the blood causes damage to many systems in the human body, and that damage can arise after periods of exposure as short as days if the level of exposure is acute. The 0.129 mg/L concentration found immediately downstream of Duke Energy’s coal ash spill is more than double the EPA’s water quality criterion for protection of fish and wildlife from acute risks of injury or death. It is about 50 times greater than EPA's chronic exposure criterion for fish and wildlife, and more than 1,000 times greater than EPA's recommended action level to prevent contamination of drinking water.
Levels of other contaminants found in the sampling just below the discharge include: Manganese: .576 mg/L; Boron: .314 mg/L; Calcium: 34.7 mg/L; Zinc: .224 mg/L; and Iron: 84.6 mg/L. Even more troubling is that heavy metals released by Duke Energy are toxic and bio-accumulative. They will stay in the river, in its sediment, and in the bodies of fish and other animals for a long time to come.
“Duke could have avoided contaminating the Dan River and poisoning Virginia's water supplies if it had removed its toxic ash heaps years ago after being warned by EPA,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance.
“On Tuesday when I collected these samples, coal ash continued to spill out of the pipe into the Dan River,” said Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance.
“Our sample crew on the Dan River today reports that there is still coal ash waste leaking out of the pipe. Waterkeeper Alliance is very concerned that there was a delay in the release of sample results from Duke Energy. They were aware of the spill and collected samples long before we did. Their failure to provide accurate, timely information to the public about the high levels of heavy metals contaminating the Dan River for days is extremely irresponsible.”
“The fact it took four days for Duke Energy to release heavy metals water test results is inexcusable,” says Waterkeeper Alliance Staff Attorney, Peter Harrison.
“These sample results raise great concern for the health and safety of our communities, river users and the wildlife in the Dan River Basin ecosystem.” said Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association.
After Waterkeepers initiated enforcement actions for illegal coal ash water pollution at two Duke Energy coal plants in North Carolina last year, the state filed lawsuits accusing Duke of illegal pollution discharges from leaks in its coal ash ponds at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants in the state of North Carolina. This includes Duke’s plant on the Dan River, where the state accused Duke of engineering an illegal discharge point to channel contamination leaking out of the ash pond into the river without authorization. A 2009 EPA study labeled Duke’s 53-year old Dan River ash pond dams “significant hazard potential structures.” Field inspections found the dams leaking and their surfaces sliding.
Duke stopped generating electricity at the coal plant in 2012, however the ash remains impounded at the site. While utilities in South Carolina have settled Waterkeeper lawsuits and started cleaning up their leaking ash ponds, Duke has thus far refused to responsibly address their ongoing contamination of public water supplies.
The Dan River coal ash spill appears to be the third largest in U.S. history. In 2008, a billion gallons of ash slurry spilled into the Emory River from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. In 2006, 100 million gallons of coal ash spilled into the Delaware River from PPL.
See additional images in this slideshow:
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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