Coal Ash Spill Raises Arsenic Concerns in North Carolina Water

North Carolina residents along parts of the Dan River are being warned to avoid contact with the water, following a recent coal ash spill that has resulted in high levels of arsenic, which may pose a serious health risk.  

Health officials warn that arsenic levels have spiked following spills of coal ash and untreated wastewater downstream from an old Duke Energy power plant.

The increases appear to be related to a release of untreated wastewater, which came just days after the same plant released tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the river. However, Duke Energy indicates that downstream water supplies remain safe.

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“The company will use a temporary system to stop the discharge to the Dan River and has already begun developing a plan to permanently plug the pipe,” the company stated in a press release issued Tuesday. “Samples of the water from the pipe indicated elevated levels of arsenic. The duration and volume of the discharge are not known.”

On February 2, a 48-inch pipe under a retired Duke Energy plant on the Dan River broke and released tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the river. Then, on February 13, Duke Energy announced that a 36-inch pipe at its retired Dan River coal plant was releasing untreated wastewater into the river. Arsenic levels in the water have been found to be 14 times higher than the federally recommended exposure level.

On February 12, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued a warning that residents should avoid contact with the coal ash and should avoid recreational use of the Dan River. They should not swim in it, or fish from it, and should thorough wash any skin that has come in contact with the contaminated water. The DHHS warning also states that the drinking water in the area is safe.

“Because the Duke Power-Eden coal ash spill is located in North Carolina’s portion of the Dan River, a potential hazard exists immediately downstream of the release. Therefore, the DHHS Division of Public Health recommends that people avoid recreational contact with water and sediment in the Dan River in North Carolina downstream of the Duke Power-Eden spill site,” the agency states. “The DHHS Division of Public Health recommends that people not consume any fish or shellfish collected from the Dan River in North Carolina downstream of the Duke Power-Eden spill site.”

Water Contamination Incidents From Coal Industry

In less than two months, numerous water contamination incidents linked to the coal industry have affected hundreds of thousands of residents who have found themselves contending with sickening smells, undrinkable water, illnesses and serious concerns about regulations overseeing the coal industry.

For years, the coal industry has run its “clean coal” campaign to convince consumers in the U.S. that use of the abundant energy source was safe, despite environmentalists and scientists warnings of air contamination and contributions to climate change. However, in recent weeks the once ubiquitous ads have disappeared from the airwaves following a number of incidents.

The first was a spill of coal cleaning chemicals into West Virginia’s Elk River in early January. The spill resulted in more than 300,000 residents in the Charleston area being told not to drink the water, which reeked of a licorice-like smell. Hundreds of people reported to local emergency rooms complaining of nausea and other illnesses after exposure to the water. It was several days before the water was declared safe to drink, but contradictory warnings for pregnant women, and occasionally high levels of the contaminants detected in water sources have left some residents still wondering if the water is safe to drink.

Freedom Industries, the company whose storage tank burst, has filed for bankruptcy and faces numerous water contamination lawsuits.

That incident was followed by the Duke Energy coal ash spill in early February and a coal slurry spill in West Virginia last week from a Patriot Coal.

Just this week, another coal industry water contamination event occurred in West Virginia. According to reports, “blackwater” spilled into a local creek in McDowell County after snow melt runoff overflowed a sediment pond at a coal mining site.

Photo by Steve Alexander, Courtesy of USFWS/Southeast via Flickr Creative Commons

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