Danville packs EPA meeting on Duke coal ash spill

The people of the River City, for the second time in five days, packed the 1920s City Council chambers Tuesday to learn what they could about the health of their city’s lifeblood.

The Environmental Protection Agency convened the meeting to brief Danville residents on water-sampling results and the cleanup of Duke Energy’s Feb. 2 ash spill. The city of 43,000 has the first water intake downstream, about 20 river miles, of the spill.

The river cuts a wide swath through the heart of Danville. It’s lined by old tobacco warehouses and textile plants, many of them empty or repurposed.

“It’s terrible. It could have been avoided and should have been avoided,” said James Buckner, 35, a pawn shop owner who’s lived in the city all his life.

Buckner likes to take his son fishing in the river – grills are set up at riverside trails so people can eat their catch on the spot. That’s not likely now, he said. Gone too is the effort the city has put into promoting Danville as a water recreation spot.

“They tap-danced all over that,” he said of Duke. He wants the utility to “clean it up, fix it. They promise they’re going to fix it, and a lot less talk and more action is what I’d like to see.”

The Dan was a listless gray two days after the spill. Tuesday it was a murky brown.

EPA is at the center of a knot of government agencies at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant, where the spill occurred. They include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Carolina and Virginia environmental and wildlife agencies. A Duke representative attended the meeting but did not speak.

The water is safe to drink and to swim in, said Myles Bartos, one of two EPA on-site coordinators. Results of water samples from the different government agencies have been consistent, he said. As river levels recede, he told residents, they should expect to see a bathtub ring of ash on the Dan’s banks.

Bartos paused during his discussion to take a sip of water.

“It’s from Danville,” he said to chuckles. “This is not a circus trick.”

Because the answers are unknown or out of the jurisdiction of the EPA officials, many questions went unanswered.

Danville resident Scott Brooks asked about his well water – likely safe, officials said – and followed up with a second question: “Who is Duke answering to?”

The EPA and Duke jointly control the spill site, said EPA on-site coordinator Kevin Eichinger – but “we’re the 51 percent of the decision ... we’re going to take oversight of the (damage) assessment and of the cleanup.”

Duke last weekend finally stopped leaks from the broken stormwater pipe that funneled ash into the Dan. Next steps are continuing to monitor the river water and its sediments for potentially toxic metals found in ash – and then cleaning up the mess.

The company has hired a third-party engineering company to make a more accurate estimate of how much ash reached the river – Duke has estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons – and how much leaked out after the initial release, Eichinger said.

Angie Lawson, who lives just across the N.C. line, said her husband had photographed dead turtles Tuesday lying “all over the place” on the banks of the Dan.

“If it’s affecting fish and wildlife, how can it not be affecting us?” she asked.

Sara Ward, a Fish and Wildlife ecologist, said no dead fish or other wildlife had been spotted by government biologists.

“But the absence of biological impacts does not mean they are not occurring,” Ward said.

Lawson left the meeting with doubts.

“I don’t drink it,” she said of the local water. “I think they’re hiding things. I think they’re not telling us everything. ... What’s going to happen long term?”

Danville City Manager Joe King said it’s too early to know what compensation the city might want from Duke.

“We haven’t assessed the damages, and until we do I don’t think it’s appropriate to guess what they’ll be,” he said. “We certainly take Duke at their word that they’ll do what it takes to make it right.

“As long as there is any question about the health and safety of the ecology of the river, we’ll be concerned.”