Davie Hinshaw - The Charlotte Observer About 30 demonstrators gathered outside Duke Energy Center on S. Tryon Street, Thursday Feb. 06, 2014, protesting Duke Energy's leaking ash pond in Eden, N.C.

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Davie Hinshaw - The Charlotte Observer About 30 demonstrators gathered outside Duke Energy Center on S. Tryon Street, Thursday Feb. 06, 2014, protesting Duke Energy's leaking ash pond in Eden, N.C.
About 30 demonstrators gathered outside Duke Energy Center on S. Tryon Street in Charlotte on Thursday, Feb. 06, 2014, protesting Duke Energy’s leaking ash pond in Eden, N.C. Photo by Davie Hinshaw, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

By Bruce Henderson

Gov. Pat McCrory demanded Thursday that Duke Energy, his former employer, control a coal ash pond spill that has leaked contaminants into the Dan River for five days.

A “very concerned” N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger added to the pressure on Duke, calling for a legislative inquiry into the spill in his hometown of Eden.

Duke, meanwhile, continued to struggle to stop the leak from a broken 48-inch stormwater pipe under the ash pond at its now-retired Dan River power plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the up to 82,000 tons of ash dumped into the Dan River on Sunday likely ranks third-highest in the nation’s history.

McCrory traveled to Eden with state environment officials and, his office said, directed Duke to take “all needed measures” to stop the leak so a cleanup can start.

“This is a serious spill, and we need to get it under control as quickly as possible,” the governor said in a statement. “Our top priorities are ensuring the health and safety of the public as well as the wildlife in the Dan River vicinity and the river itself, and the best way to do that is get this controlled and cleaned up.”

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the corrugated metal and concrete pipe continued to release “very minimal” amounts of material, but she did not have a volume estimate. The pipe can’t be plugged, she said, because workers need access to its interior to attempt permanent repairs.

“We agree with (McCrory’s) position that there is urgency at the site,” she said. “We are leveraging all available resources to not only stop the flow but seal the pipe.”

Crews brought in a crane Wednesday night to help pump water from the ash pond near the pipe’s break point so they can dig around it, Culbert said. Duke expects to fill the pipe with concrete or grout to close it permanently.

McCrory praised the state environment department for its response to the spill. “We need to make sure this never happens again in North Carolina,” he said.

The release from the governor’s office also touted lawsuits the state filed against Duke last year for its ash handling at all 14 of its active and retired coal-fired power plants.

The state filed those lawsuits only after environmental groups gave notice of their intention to sue Duke on their own. A proposed settlement, for the Riverbend power plant near Charlotte and the Asheville plant, drew nearly 5,000 public comments calling it too lenient.

Inquiry set

Berger, the Senate president pro tem and an Eden attorney, wrote the co-chairs of the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission about Duke’s ash and a 3.5-million-gallon sewage spill last month into the Haw River.

Berger said he was “very concerned about the quality and timeliness of the responses of everyone involved.”

Environmental groups have hammered Duke for waiting a day to notify the public of the spill, which mixed tons of ash with up to 27 million gallons of water, turning the Dan River gray.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has said Duke met notification deadlines of 24 hours to contact state environmental officials and 48 hours to produce a news release.

Berger wants both spills added to the agenda for Wednesday’s commission meeting. He asked that officials of Burlington, Eden, Duke and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources attend.

Berger asked for “a detailed account of the events as they occurred, an updated description of the water quality of the Haw and the Dan rivers, and a description of both the ongoing cleanup and steps taken to ensure that these events never happen again,” in a note to the commission’s co-chairs, which include Sen. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg.

Berger’s staff said he wasn’t available for an interview.

State legislators have cut environmental agencies’ budgets in recent years. The state water-quality staff, after budget cuts and reorganization, is expected to be 24 percent smaller by March than it was in early 2011.

Last year, legislators also changed the rules under which groundwater contamination from ash ponds could be ruled a state violation. Environmental advocates charged the change could allow contamination to spread to neighboring properties. Duke said the legislation simply codified existing rules.

Water samples tested

Water samples taken Monday and Tuesday, tested for 17 potentially toxic metals that occur in ash, found only copper above state standards, DENR reported Thursday. Test results for 11 more metals haven’t been completed.

“The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health,” said Tom Reeder, the state water resources director. The state is especially concerned about the long-term impact of ash particles sinking into river sediment, he said.

Duke has extended its own water testing downstream to Kerr Reservoir, about 60 miles east of Eden. Duke has said test results so far have found no contaminants, in filtered water, above state drinking water standards.

Two environmental advocates, the Waterkeeper Alliance and Yadkin Riverkeeper, reported “extremely high” levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and other potentially toxic metals in the Dan River.

The groups reported arsenic levels below the broken pipe of 349 parts per billion on Tuesday. Duke’s highest results, from unfiltered water samples taken a day earlier, were only one-tenth as high at 35 ppb.

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