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EPA reaches deal to clean coal ash spill

Energy company must pay to clear sludge in N.C., Va.

The Feb. 2 spill in the Dan River coated 70 miles of the waterway with toxic gray sludge.

Gerry Broom/Associated PRess/file

The Feb. 2 spill in the Dan River coated 70 miles of the waterway with toxic gray sludge.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Federal environmental officials said Thursday that they have reached a deal with Duke Energy to clean up its mess from a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River that coated 70 miles of the waterway in North Carolina and Virginia with toxic gray sludge.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it had finalized an enforceable agreement with the nation’s largest electricity company over the Feb. 2 spill, which was triggered when a pipe collapsed at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station.

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The EPA will oversee the cleanup in consultation with federal wildlife officials under provisions in the Superfund law. Duke will reimburse the federal government for its oversight costs, including those incurred in the emergency response to the spill.

“EPA will work with Duke Energy to ensure that cleanup at the site, and affected areas, is comprehensive based on sound scientific and ecological principles, complies with all federal and state environmental standards, and moves as quickly as possible,” said Heather McTeer Toney, the EPA’s regional administrator based in Atlanta.

The agreement makes no mention of any fines imposed against Duke, which has its headquarters in Charlotte. The EPA did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about whether any civil penalties could still be forthcoming.

Duke did not immediately comment on the settlement.

Recent testing of water samples from the river show the level of contamination decreased quickly after the spill as the ash and the toxic heavy metals it contains sank to the bottom. Duke has already begun vacuuming out three large deposits of ash in the river, including a pocket that collected at the bottom of a dam in Danville, Va.

The byproduct left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, the ash contains numerous toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium, chromium, thallium, mercury, and lead. Wildlife officials will be collecting tissue samples from fish in the Dan River to monitor whether the contamination works its way up the food chain. Public health officials in both states have advised residents not to eat fish caught downstream of the spill site.

“Conditions resulting from the coal ash release at the Dan River Steam Station present a substantial threat to public health or welfare and the environment if not properly managed,” the agency states in the agreement signed Thursday.

The agreement warns that any delay in the cleanup could cause serious problems.

“Actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances from this site, if not addressed by implementing the response action selected in this Action Memorandum, may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health, welfare or the environment,” the agreement says.

The agreement does not appear to resolve a criminal investigation into the spill and the company’s close relationships with North Carolina politicians and regulators.

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