Second N.C. ash spill plugged; woes remain

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- A second ruptured stormwater pipe that has been spilling toxic coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia has been sealed, North Carolina officials announced late Friday.

The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Duke Energy, whose coal ash containment basin in Eden, N.C., is the source of the ash, managed to block the discharge with a concrete plug. The 36-inch pipe has been leaking coal ash since about Feb. 14, spilling arsenic and other heavy metals into the river.

On Feb. 2, a broken 48-inch stormwater pipe at the same shuttered Duke coal-fired plant spewed tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. Duke first said the spill was between 50,000 and 82,000 tons, but later reduced the estimate to 30,000 to 39,000 tons.

The environmental agency announced six days later that the 48-inch pipe had been sealed. But the river remains contaminated with coal ash, as environmental groups clash with the agency and Duke over the extent of danger to humans and damage to fish, wildlife and the environment.

On Monday, the North Carolina environmental agency announced that it was testing water in the John H. Kerr reservoir on the Virginia-North Carolina border after Virginia officials spotted coal ash on the lake surface. The reservoir, 80 miles from the spill site, is fed by the Dan River and other waterways.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the Dan River bottom was coated with coal ash from the Feb. 2 spill site to a point at least 70 miles downstream, threatening fish and mussels.

On Friday, the state environmental agency reported that its latest tests of river water show that levels of aluminum and iron, two heavy metals, exceed state surface water standards. The samples, collected Feb. 7, indicate that aluminum and iron levels continue to drop, the agency said. "While aluminum and iron are naturally occurring metals in many rivers, state environmental officials remain concerned about the long-term health of the Dan River," the agency said.

Environmental groups have accused the agency of protecting Duke Energy, the nation's largest electricity provider, and blocking environmentalists' attempts to sue the utility in federal court and force it to shut down coal ash basins. They say the agency for years has taken no action to stop seepage of coal ash from 32 basins at 14 Duke Energy coal-fired plants in North Carolina.

Federal investigators have launched a criminal inquiry.

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