Complications from Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill and related wastewater dumping continue, but local drinking water supplies remain unaffected and are unlikely to be threatened, even if a similar spill were to occur closer to Wilmington, according to officials with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.
“Several factors are in our favor — location, distance and preparedness,” said Mike McGill, CFPUA spokesman. “Our intakes are located miles upstream from the area’s ash ponds and a significant distance from the dumping that has taken place. That said, we’re not sitting on our hands waiting to react to news. We’re taking steps to make sure we can act immediately in case impacts are discovered.”
In early February, thousands of tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled from a closed Duke Energy coal-fired plant into the Dan River near Eden. Coal ash is byproduct of burning coal that’s typically watered down and stored in large, in-ground basins known as ash ponds. It contains multiple toxins that are harmful to humans, including arsenic, mercury and boron, among others. To date, the Dan River spill hasn’t affected nearby supplies of drinking water, and because New Hanover County’s drinking water comes primarily from the Cape Fear River, local supplies weren’t threatened.
But Duke Energy has also pumped contaminants into the Cape Fear River. Earlier this month, state regulators discovered that the utility discharged more than 60 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into the river from a steam plant in Chatham County. The source of that spill was roughly 160 miles northwest of Wilmington, and contaminated water has yet to make its way here. But officials said that even if a spill were to occur farther south — for example, from the ash ponds at the Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington — local drinking water would remain safe.
“If the ash ponds at Sutton failed and the river flowed the other way, it might be a problem,” McGill said. “But our intake point is 20 miles north of the city, so it’s unlikely we would be affected.”
Extra sampling added
CFPUA is required by law to conduct a battery of tests to ensure the safety of both raw and treated drinking water, but the authority ramped up those testing efforts in the wake of the Cape Fear spill. After passing an annual test for metals and other contaminants last fall, CFPUA officials tweaked the test to include several contaminants indicative of coal ash pollution, and will run it again monthly for the next three months. Each round of testing costs between $500 and $800, and initial sampling will take place next week, according to Mike Richardson, water resources manager.
“This is not required testing. It’s just our due diligence to make sure we don’t see a problem,” he said. “I expect nothing unusual.”
If test results indicated contamination, it’s possible that the treatment procedures used at CFPUA facilities would be capable of safely removing pollutants from drinking water. But even if the Cape Fear River were heavily polluted, officials would be able to continue to supply water to area residents by encouraging restricted use and tapping into emergency stores, among other things.
“If we don’t have raw water coming in, that automatically triggers an emergency action plan,” Richardson said. “We would tap into our wells, file different reports at the city, county, state and national levels, and go to mandatory water restriction. We might not have enough water for you to do everything you want, but we have enough for you to bathe and to cook.”
Similar emergency procedures are in place in Brunswick County, where residents receive drinking water from groundwater sources as well as the river, according to John Nichols, assistant director of Brunswick County Public Utilities.
“We have a groundwater plant in the Southport area, and we have several interconnections with other utilities, so we can, in emergency situations, get some water from them,” he said. “There are some options available.”
But those types of responses are extremely unlikely to be launched as a result of coal ash contamination, particularly from the Sutton plant, Richardson said.
“If there was a problem with an ash pond, none of this is likely, because that’s below our intake,” he said. “But we try to stay proactive. We’re looking all the time at what’s out there and what’s coming.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram: 343-2217
On Twitter: @kate_goes_bleu