After an aging stormwater pipe collapsed beneath a North Carolina coal ash pond earlier this month, spewing approximately 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, state officials have discovered that a second pipe beneath the same pond is still releasing arsenic.
Meanwhile, amid questions of lax regulatory practices, federal prosecutors have ordered N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources employees testify before a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation in the wake of the spill, the Associated Press reported.
North Carolina ordered Duke Energy late Tuesday afternoon to immediately halt the flow of arsenic-laden water into the Dan River after a video from inside a 36-inch diameter pipe showed water from the waste pond bubbling through the pipe’s seams.
“Puddles inside the pipe indicate that the pipe is out of proper vertical alignment,” state environmental regulators said in a statement Tuesday.
Safety Engineer Steve McEvoy determined the pipe is precarious enough to have potential to “release ash material in a way similar to the 48-inch conduit,” which caused the earlier spill.
After originally determining “no immediate action was necessary,” Duke Energy released a statement late Tuesday indicating it was actively seeking to permanently plug the flow.
Coal ash, the heavy metal-laden and possibly radioactive byproduct of coal production, was not always N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ highest regulatory priority. Environmental groups tried three times before the spill to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clean up leaky coal ash ponds like the one that ruptured. Their lawsuits were all blocked by the agency, according to the Houston Chronicle.
After negotiating with Duke, the agency “proposed settlements where the nation's largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds,” the Chronicle reported. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents related to the agency's regulation of Duke's coal ash dumps before the Feb. 2 spill.
In what looked like a major shift in the state’s lax approach to coal ash removal, N.C. Governor Pat McCrory said Monday that Duke must “fix what’s broken, and then they’ve got to have a long-term solution of moving the ash ponds so they don’t cause long-term issues with our water.” One day later, however, McCrory’s office walked back the statement, saying removing the coal ash was just “one option.”
Public drinking water facilities in Danville, Virginia, and other downstream communities are successfully filtering out the heavy metals from the spill, according to authorities. The state’s most recent tests found levels of aluminum and iron in the river are still elevated above water quality thresholds in some places.
On Tuesday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that coal ash had accumulated in an enormous pile, as much as 75 feet long and 5 feet tall, at the bottom of the river the site where the first storm drain failed. The ash is also piling up as many as 70 miles downstream of the spill, crossing the state line into Virginia and into Kerr Lake, a major drinking-water reservoir.
A second Duke Energy facility, the Wabash River Station in Indiana, is also built over a storm drain. Angeline Protogere, a spokesperson for Duke’s Indiana operations, tells Newsweek the facility was inspected last week, and the results are expected at the end of the month.