Representatives from Duke Energy told City Council on Tuesday night that the company is committed to continuing efforts to monitor and restore the Dan River following the coal ash spill in early February at its shuttered plant in Eden, N.C.
Those efforts include ongoing sampling of the water, removal of large coal ash deposits left in the river from the spill, and removal of the coal ash from the basins at the Eden plant.
“We reiterate our sincere apology that this happened,” said Mike Hughes, vice president of community relations for Duke Energy. “We take full responsibility for it, and we will continue to make this right.”
That effort will continue in the long term, Hughes said.
“We are a 110-year-old company. We are not going anywhere. We will be here and you can count on us to be there for a number of years.”
In response, Mayor Sherman Saunders said, “You said you are a 110-year-old company with no relation with Danville. I would say ‘now you do.’”
A pipe under the main coal ash pond at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station broke on Feb. 2 and spewed up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river.
Saunders and several council members repeatedly stressed the negative perception of Danville created by the spill. That perception has created a degree of fear among local citizens, and it has tarnished Danville’s reputation and image.
“People are reading about our city all over the world and they are not reading good things,” Saunders said, pointing out that estimates that say it will take at least two years to clean up the river could mean potential economic development prospects may wait to see how that works out before they commit to moving here.
City Manager Joe King added, “We are in the process of competing for a very large industrial prospect. We are competing against two other communities in Virginia. We have very good reason to believe they have raised the coal spill to our client. We are in a defensive position. … I can tell you it is a factor already in our industrial recruiting.”
King continued, saying, “We are clawing our way out of a deep economic hole. We are trying to rebuild our population and transition our business. We just cannot afford to lose momentum in attracting people here, keeping people here and attracting new businesses.”
Hughes acknowledged the problem, saying, “A coal ash spill is not something you want to be associated with. We recognize that. We understand that. We will continue to work with Danville and other communities along the river to talk about the broader issues not associated with an invoice or receipt.”
King said the city plans to continue efforts to assure citizens the drinking water is safe and to address the following issues:
• Is it safe for citizens to walk along the city’s extensive network of riverside walking and biking trails, to take part in boating and other river recreation activities, and to consume fish from the river?
• What is the short-term and long-term ecological impact due to the spill?
• Is there an actual danger or a perceived danger?
• Is Danville’s reputation and image damaged?
He announced the city is planning to launch three independent studies. One study will address the quality of the river as a drinking water source. This study will consider the impact from the remaining coal ash in the river during high river flow events. It also will determine if there are other upstream threats to the river as a source of drinking water.
The other two studies will address the ecological impact to the river from the coal ash spill and the economic impact on the city from the spill.
In addition, the city is forming a small advisory group of local environmentalists and scientists. “There is so much emotion around this issue that this group will help us read this information,” King said.
Hughes and Duke Energy District Manager Davis Montgomery outlined the company’s efforts to date. They said the discharge from two pipes under the coal ash basins that served the Dan River plant has been stopped. The pipes are permanently sealed.
They said the company has identified large deposits of ash along the river bottom. The largest deposit located immediately below the plant at the point of discharge has been removed.
The company focus now is on removing a deposit found near the Schoolfield Dam in Danville. “The plan for removal has not yet been approved,” Hughes said. “It likely will take one month to obtain a permit. Once we receive the permit, it will be a three-month remediation process.”
Monitoring of the river continues in cooperation with state and federal agencies. Tests of collected samples continue to show the surface water at normal levels for the presence of heavy metals tested, Hughes said.
In addition, the company will send letters to the approximately 400 property owners along the river from the shuttered plant to Kerr Lake water basin. “We want to give them a means to engage,” Hughes said.
Hughes also reported the company has developed a plan to remove the coal ash from not only the two coal ash basins in Eden, N.C., but from its other coal ash basins in North Carolina. “We plan to move the ash, preferably for a beneficial re-use application,” Hughes said. “If not, then we will move the ash to a lined landfill.”
Hughes said the company estimates it will take 24 to 30 months to remove the coal ash from the Dan River basins following the receipt of permits from state and federal authorities. He said the two basins hold two million tons or 50,000 truckloads of coal ash collected over 60 years of plant operation.
In addition to the presentation from Duke Energy at the City Council meeting, City Council members were present earlier Tuesday when the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) provided a public update on how Virginia state agencies are responding and their planned next steps.
At that meeting, state agency officials said they would continue to assess conditions in the Dan River and monitor remediation efforts.