Enviros offer $5K reward for info on NC coal ash spill leading to charges

An aerial view of the Danville, Va. water treatment plant taken on Feb. 6 shows grayish coal ash accumulating near the intake. Officials say the water remains safe to drink following treatment. (Photo by Rick Dove of the Waterkeeper Alliance.)

Blasting state regulators for their mishandling of Duke Energy's massive coal ash spill into the Dan River, two environmental advocacy groups are offering up to $5,000 to anyone who can provide them with information leading to civil or criminal charges related to the spill.

The reward is being offered by the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Yadkin Riverkeeper. The clean water advocacy groups have criticized North Carolina regulators for delays in giving the public information about the spill, which released somewhere between 100 million and 164 million pounds of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the river, and for claiming arsenic levels in the water were safe when its own data showed otherwise. The Dan provides drinking water for downstream communities in Virginia; those supplies reportedly remain safe following treatment.

"The fact it took more than five days for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to release complete water test results for heavy metals is inexcusable," said Yadkin Riverkeeper Executive Director Dean Naujoks. "They were aware of the spill and collected samples long before we did. Their failure to provide accurate, timely information to the public about the high levels of heavy metals contaminating the Dan River for days is extremely irresponsible."

Anyone who can provide new information about the spill that leads to criminal and/or civil charges is asked to send evidence to reward@waterkeeper.org. Waterkeeper Alliance said it will evaluate the evidence submitted and provide the reward of up to $5,000, "as it sees fit."

On Sunday, Feb. 9, N.C. DENR issued a statement clarifying its reporting on arsenic levels last week. On Thursday, the agency reported that arsenic levels for all sampling locations were within state standards. But in fact, testing of water samples collected downstream of the spill found total arsenic levels in two samples exceeded state standards for human health, which is 10 micrograms per liter.

Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources, said state regulators "made an honest mistake while interpreting the results." He said they initially compared the test results to the standard for safe exposure for aquatic life rather than the stricter one for human health. DENR is recommending that the public avoid prolonged contact with the Dan River in the area of the spill until further notice.

Meanwhile, lab tests on samples of water from the Dan River collected by the Waterkeeper Alliance immediately downstream of the spill found much higher levels of toxic metals than the state did, with arsenic 30 times higher than background levels and almost 35 times greater than the standard the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable in drinking water.

Arsenic is a potent toxin that can cause cancer and that has been associated with developmental problems, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

The clean water groups criticized state regulators' actions for breeding "widespread mistrust" among the public. Contributing to the atmosphere of mistrust is the fact that Gov. Pat McCrory (R) formerly worked for Duke Energy for 28 years and continues to hold a significant amount of stock in the company, though he has refused to disclose exactly how much.

In addition, after environmental groups brought a citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy last year under the federal Clean Water Act to force the company to clean up its coal ash pits across North Carolina, all of which are leaking pollution to the environment, the McCrory administration intervened at the last minute and negotiated a settlement that amounted to a monetary slap on the wrist for Duke and that did not require the company to clean up the ash pits. Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog group, called it a "remarkable sweetheart deal anchored with $1 million in campaign contributions." Duke Energy's profit in the third quarter of 2013 alone was $1 billion.

Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pointed out that Duke Energy could have avoided the disaster on the Dan if it had heeded warnings about the risks of such storage and cleaned up its toxic ash pits. Environmentalists want the ash moved into dry storage in lined landfills, where it won't pose such a severe water pollution threat. However, Duke Energy and other politically powerful coal-burning utilities have lobbied to block federal rules requiring that.

"Environmental crime is not a victimless crime," Kennedy said. "The poisoning of the Dan River is an act of theft at the very least. North Carolina's constitution provides that the people of North Carolina own the waterway but Duke Energy has now illegally privatized it."