RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Farmers along the Dan River can use surface water for crops and livestock because toxic sludge from a massive coal ash spill has settled to the bottom, a report by university researchers found.
Three North Carolina State University scientists found that lead, arsenic, copper and other byproducts of coal burned at a Duke Energy Corp. power plant have declined sharply since the Feb. 2 spill. None of the hundreds of water samples tested exceeded guidelines for cattle drinking water supplies, according to the report this week by agriculture professors with backgrounds in how water, chemicals and soils interact.
Duke Energy did not pay N.C. State scientists Dean Hesterberg, Matthew Polizzotto and Carl Crozier for their research but did provide them with data that was already publicly available, company spokesman Jeff Brooks said Friday.
"We've heard concerns and questions from residents along the river about safety of water for livestock and other animals as well as for agricultural operations," Brooks said. "We hope that this report can provide some information to address those concerns, and help reinforce data that we've found that demonstrates that the river is returning to normal water-quality levels."
About a dozen farms grow crops or graze cattle along the river near the Virginia border, The News & Record of Greensboro reported (http://bit.ly/1nfG3Ck). They include Jerry Apple, who was encouraged to hear he could use the river to irrigate his corn fields near the Rockingham County community of Ruffin.
"I kinda thought that was what the deal was gonna be from what I heard, but I hadn't heard a statement for sure," Apple said. "That's good."
The report counsels farmers to draw water from near the river's surface to avoid coal ash that filtered to the bottom. Farmers shouldn't irrigate after rains which could kick up heavy metals that settled to the riverbed, the report said. Agricultural users also should monitor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website and other sources of water-quality information for any increases in contaminants, the report said.
A collapsed pipe at Duke Energy's Eden power plant triggered the spill that polluted 70 miles of the Dan River. The nation's largest electric company reported Thursday that it had spent $15 million so far on cleanup. The company also has started trying to dredge some of the spilled ash from the riverbed.
Duke Energy can't yet estimate its costs from new laws affecting how the company handles the ash at its 33 coal ash dumps in North Carolina, or from future legal claims, litigation or environmental fines, the company said in a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Environmentalists want state officials to require Duke Energy to remove more than 100 million tons of the toxic ash away from waterways to lined landfills licensed to handle hazardous waste. Coal ash contains chemicals that are harmful to people and wildlife, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the state's oversight of Duke's coal ash dumps.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.