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Monday, February 10, 2014

N.C. Officials Insist Water Is Safe After Coal Ash Spill

Demonstrators chant and hold signs behind a display of coal ash and the chemicals in it during a protest near Duke Energy's headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 over Duke Energy's coal plants. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Demonstrators chant and hold signs behind a display of coal ash and the chemicals in it during a protest near Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 over Duke Energy’s coal plants. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Officials in North Carolina continue to insist that water is safe to drink after a massive spill from a coal ash storage pond on Feb. 2 turned the Dan River near Eden, N.C. cloudy for miles.

But North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced in a statement yesterday that the agency made “an honest mistake” when it reported last Thursday that arsenic levels for all sampling locations on the Dan River were within state standards, when in fact two water samples collected last week did exceed state standards for human health.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson gets the latest from Jeff Tiberii of WUNC.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And we're going to spend a minutes today with Olympian Frank Shorter remembering the astonishing and deadly terrorist attack during the 1972 Olympics, but also getting his thoughts for athletes today.

HOBSON: But first officials in North Carolina continue to insist that water from the Dan River along the Virginia border is safe to drink even though they now acknowledge that they have found unsafe levels of arsenic in some of the water samples. The heavy metal is in the water because of a storm pipe that burst on Super Bowl Sunday underneath a Duke Energy storage pond. That spill turned the Dan River cloudy for miles, and the pipe was capped on Saturday.

Jeff Tiberii is a reporter with WUNC. He joins us from Greensboro. Jeff, welcome.

JEFF TIBERII: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, so why this flip-flop now from officials on the toxicity of the water?

TIBERII: Well, there are different standards. One's for aquatic life, and there are other standards for humans, who would be in the water swimming or fishing or, you know, just spending time on the Dan River. The state Division of Environment and Natural Resources, known by DENR around these parts, they were using the wrong standard.

And I spoke with an environmentalist this morning, her name is Amy Adams(ph). She used to work with DENR. She spent about 10 years working with the state. She put it concisely. She said this is either purposefully misleading or total incompetence.

HOBSON: And let's back up here for people that haven't been following this story. Coal ash, this is a byproduct of coal-burning electric power plants, it's stored in fact all over the country, but remind us of how this all happened in the first place. What happened here?

TIBERII: Well, there's a storm pipe that has nothing to do with the coal ash pond, and the stormwater pipe went from this now-retired coal-fired power plant into the Dan River. And in time, as Duke Energy, the nation's electricity provider, made more and more energy, the coal ash, which is the residue, you know, the leftover, the byproduct as you mentioned, that pond got bigger. So in time the pond expanded and was suddenly over the pipe.

The pipe was not concrete, as Duke initially indicated. It was actually a metal corrugated pipe. And that caused some corrosion, being below the coal ash, and it burst on Super Bowl Sunday. Why it burst it's not entirely clear, but 82,000 tons of this coal ash went into the Dan River.

HOBSON: And some people are pointing to lax regulation. There are clean water advocates saying that the state regulators in North Carolina are too cozy with the very companies that they regulate. Tell us about the regulation of coal ash ponds.

TIBERII: So there are 37, including this pond, coal ash ponds throughout the state of North Carolina. And they're at 14 different sites where Duke Energy used to produce coal ash. Most of those sites, if not all of them, are now no longer producing. They're in the process of winding them down. But, you know, when these coal ash ponds first came about, there were no regulations in the sense that you didn't have to cap them, you didn't have to line them. So essentially it was all right, we're going to put the coal ash over here, we're going to dig a hole, we're going to mix some water in so the coal ash doesn't blow away, and not much has changed.

Environmentalists are asking whether or not DENR, that environmental - the state environmental agency, is really going to be responsible and handle this. And I talked to one environmentalist who said let's, you know, just make sure people are aware that the governor of the state, Pat McCrory, did work for Duke Energy for 29 years.

He says that his administration has been firm on this, that they are going to call for a long-term plan from Duke and, you know, hear whether or not these coal ash ponds should be capped or whether they could, you know, in theory move the coal ash pond. But at this point the administration, the governor's administration, has not given Duke a timeline or said when they would expect any long-term proposal to be put out there.

HOBSON: What about the cleanup? How long's that going to take?

TIBERII: It's going to take years. And obviously there's some cleanup that you just, you can't clean it all up. Eighty-two thousand tons went into the Dan River. This river provides drinking water to Danville, Virginia, which is about 22 miles downstream. And I believe as quick as three days afterward, on Wednesday of last week, they found some sediment in Danville, Virginia. So there's really no way to, you know, kind of undo what's happened.

HOBSON: Jeff, of course this comes not long after the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. How are people feeling about this, in the few seconds we have left?

TIBERII: You know, people wouldn't - I think the theme here is that there - people are calling for more regulation. They're calling for action to be taken because as we've seen, two very serious things have happened. And I think the concern is that this is going to continue happening at these old sites where pipes are old and leaking and some of these contaminants are getting into the groundwater supply. Folks would like to see some serious change happen and in a hurry.

HOBSON: Jeff Tiberii, reporter with WUNC, joining us from Greensboro, North Carolina. Jeff, thanks so much.

TIBERII: Thanks Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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