Lessons Learned From Dan River Coal Ash Spill

By Rachel Nash Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:59 pm

As we continue to follow the repercussions from the Dan River coal ash spill, one of the largest in U.S. history, the more than 80,000 OWASA users in our area can be thankful that the water they drink is not supplied by the Dan River or any of its estuaries.

Alan Rimer, Chair of the OWASA Board of Directors, explained that the non-profit agency serving Chapel Hill and Carrboro draws water from three local supplies: the Cane Creek Reservoir, University Lake and the Quarry Reservoir west of Carrboro.

“We are also fortunate in that we do not have any coal ash storage ponds in our watershed. The only power plant we have is the one on UNC’s campus, which handles their ash, or what ash they used to have, in a totally different manner. It was shipped off-site. So, we are protected all the way around,” Rimer said.

The spill happened on February 2 at a former Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina, when millions of gallons of coal ash and waste water were leaked.

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR] alerted Duke Energy that it was considering changes to its waste water permits for coal ash ponds.

Rimer said that though the coal ash spill does not impact Orange County, there are still lessons to be learned.

In January, thousands of gallons of chemicals contaminated the water supply in Charleston, West Virginia.

Both of these situations, Rimer explained, show the necessity of maintaining properly-working storage outside of chemical tanks in the case of spills.

“If a municipality does not require chemicals that are stored, which could somehow how get into the watershed are properly protected, then you have got a real problem,” he said.

Chemical storage facilities in Orange County comply with federally-mandated regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is enforced by DENR.

“While we do not have a coal ash pile, we do have chemicals that are not dissimilar in their potential to impact our watershed. We look after those very carefully in the county.”

In a WCHL commentary in January, Rimer explained that through the cooperation of local governments, the density and impact of development in our local watersheds are limited by some of the most stringent watershed zoning, streamside buffer requirements, and impervious surface limits in the state. These standards, he said, help to reduce the likelihood of contaminants from reaching area reservoirs.

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