Duke Energy to vacuum toxic deposits in Dan River clean

01_nk_ash map 040614__Q1V2418.jpgNELSON KEPLEY/News & Record

This sign, stapled to a tree at Abreu-Grogan Park in Danville, Va., advises citizens of a Feb. 2 coal ash spill about 20 miles upstream in the Dan River (background).


Read more news coverage of the coal ash spill onour Dan River Disaster page.

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 12:24 am

By Taft Wireback taft.wireback@news-record.com

DANVILLE, Va. — Officials drew a sparse crowd Monday to preview their plans for cleaning up what could be the granddaddy of coal ash deposits left by Duke Energy’s Dan River spill two months ago.

A few dozen residents of Virginia and North Carolina turned out to screen the power company’s plan to vacuum up a 2,500-ton deposit near the city’s Schoolfield Dam, not far from where the community draws its drinking water.

Duke estimates the Feb. 2 spill released 30,000 to 39,000 tons of toxic ash, which would mean the Schoolfield Dam site accumulated 6 to 8 percent of the entire spill.

“This is the first dam downstream from the plant,” Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said, referring to the Eden power plant where the spill occurred. “This is by far the largest we have found so far.”

By contrast, the deposit that Duke contractors cleared at the utility’s retired Dan River Steam Station, about 20 miles upstream where the spill occurred, topped out at roughly 19 tons, he said.

Danville water treatment manager Alan Johnson said his staff rigorously tested city drinking water shortly after the spill and continued up to the present and found no coal ash contaminants.

“Even Feb. 2 with the initial release of 39,000 tons and 27 million gallons (of contaminated water), we didn’t see anything get through our treatment process,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that he felt confident the same would be true when Duke Energy begins vacuuming coal ash in about two weeks, using a barge based at a temporary work camp in a city park.

But just to be sure, once dredging begins, he plans to shift the city water plant’s hours of operation from daytime when cleanup will be underway to overnight, when it won’t be, Johnson said.

Duke spokesman Brooks said company contractors will use a more sophisticated dredging technique than simply scooping into the river bottom, as is common.

Instead, they will avoid needlessly disturbing the bottom by sweeping up the gray ash with a tool that works somewhat like a household vacuum cleaner, he said.

Johnson said submerged parts of Duke’s dredging tool also will be surrounded by special curtains designed to prevent coal ash from escaping.

The cleanup is likely to last through June, Brooks said.

Contaminants will be separated from the water, and the dried muck will go to a lined landfill for disposal, he said.

In addition to Johnson and Brooks, the drop-in style meeting at the Danville Community Market building featured representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulators from both state governments, Danville park officials, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and others.

Some of the residents who stopped by left reassured.

Danville residents Eng lon and Brenda Roberts came out of concern for the safety of city tap water.

“It looks like everyone is up on their game, moving in the right direction and working together,” Englon Roberts said.

Fellow city resident Dorsey Jordan agreed that drinking water is the chief concern and that Monday’s information session calmed his fears: “I just hope it doesn’t get worse because the river is very important to Danville.”

Not everyone left satisfied.

Danville resident Lynn Pearson said too much was being made of coal ash in a river polluted for decades by the textile industry.

Duke Energy will direct and pay for the cleanup — costs are unknown — but under supervision by the agencies from different governments that came to the Monday meeting.

“It’s really a team effort,” EPA coordinator Patricia Taylor said. “Duke Energy is doing it, but we’re here to make sure they are doing it right.”

Contact Taft Wireback at (336) 373-7100, and follow @TaftWireback on Twitter