Researcher: Spill cost likely starts at $70 million

Researcher: Spill cost likely starts at $70 million

Source: News & Record (Greensboro, NC), February 23, 2014
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The recent coal ash spill on the Dan River caused at least $70 million in damage to fish, wildlife and other related aspects of the economy, according to a Wake Forest University professor with an extensive background in coal ash research.

The amount is a conservative “baseline” estimate, said Dennis Lemly, who also is a research fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service.

“It will almost certainly go up, perhaps way up, from there by a factor of 5 to 10,” Lemly said.

That means harm to the natural world valued up to $700 million over the years, in addition to whatever else is spent on cleanup and restoration, according to Lemly’s preliminary calculations.

And if anybody knows, it’s Lemly.

The 58-year-old researcher found his life’s work in tracking the harmful impact of coal pollution on Mother Nature, particularly on fish and other aquatic life.

“I’ve made a career in the last 30 years out of making body counts” of fish killed or severely damaged by pollution from coal mining and from coal-fired power plants, Lemly said.

Lemly made his baseline estimate for damage to the Dan River using a yardstick of $1 million in harm per mile of “ash-impacted river,” he said. Last week, federal wildlife inspectors said coal ash now coats the bottom of the Dan for 70 miles downstream from the Feb. 2 spill near Eden.

Among the factors Lemly considers in putting a dollar value on the fish, wildlife and related losses to coal ash contamination:

l The cost of losing a “healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem” with diverse fish and wildlife.

l The lost revenue throughout the economy from a reduction in outdoor activities such as fishing, boating and swimming.

l Lower property values along the lake or river because of “the stigma of environmental pollution.”

l The value of contaminated fish and wildlife that otherwise would have been consumed.

Lemly got his start in coal ash research as a graduate student at Wake Forest during the late 1970s, investigating why most of the fish had died off in Belews Lake near the power plant run by the company then known as Duke Power.

Now, he looks on perplexed as Duke Energy sits in the hot seat for the Feb. 2 spill near the retired Dan River Steam Station.

Utilities and regulators should have learned from the Belews Creek incident three decades ago, Lemly said: “Tragically, that did not happen.”

Coal ash is what’s left after pulverized coal is burned in a power plant to produce electricity. But the ash wreaks its havoc on aquatic life almost exclusively through one element in its makeup — selenium, Lemly said.

In concentrations that are too high, selenium leaves fish with deformities that include misshapen spines; “craniofacial” defects of the mouth, jaw and gill cover; fin irregularities; unnatural accumulations of fluids and chronic swelling; and eye problems that include cataracts and protruding eyeballs.

Too much selenium also renders fish unable to reproduce, Lemly said. If nothing changes and selenium keeps contaminating the lake or river, that species gets wiped out in that area.

“A lot of them die shortly after birth,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “So over a period of two or three years, the older fish die off and there’s no young ones to replace them and repopulate. They just die off.”

Meantime, excessive selenium moves up the food chain and affects other wildlife that prey on contaminated fish and other aquatic creatures or that drink from the polluted stream or lake, Lemly said.

Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s documented that selenium from coal ash discharges eliminated 19 of the 20 species of fish in Belews Lake, he said.

A Duke spokeswoman said last week the company responded aggressively at Belews Creek after its own scientists made the connection between coal ash and the fish problems.

The company changed its processes at the Belews plant to dispose of much of the ash in a dry form and greatly reduce discharges of wastewater, “with very beneficial results for Belews Lake,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

“The fish recovered fully some time ago, and Belews Lake has a robust fishery today,” Culbert said. “The vast majority of ash being generated today at our North Carolina operating plants is already being managed in lined landfills.”

Lemly and Culbert agree that “dry ash handling” and landfill disposal is the way to go, the way that best protects lakes, streams and groundwater.

But the company has 31 ash ponds at 14 sites in North Carolina that still are in some type of use, either receiving waste from working coal-fired plants or holding tons of spent fuel accumulated over the decades at Dan River and other retired plants.

Culbert said Duke Energy is working as quickly as it can toward a long-term fix for the remaining ash ponds, starting with those at Dan River and other coal plants that have been retired.

But Lemly’s research suggests the damage from those ponds could persist for years, despite the company’s efforts to close them down safely. Tissue taken from fish in Belews Lake decades after Duke reformed its ash-handling processes still tested high in selenium, he noted in one report for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal administrators have tapped Lemly’s expertise as they grapple with the best way of controlling coal ash. The EPA must make a decision by mid-December whether to regulate the material as a hazardous waste.

In addition to that agency, Lemly also has advised the U.S. Office of Management and Budget on the topic of coal ash.

His report to the EPA documented 23 catastrophic incidents during the past 40 years linked to coal ash contamination throughout the country, carrying a total price tag of $2.3 billion in damages to fish and wildlife.

Since then, his list has grown to include coal ash contamination at the Dan River plant this month and earlier incidents at Sutton Lake near Wilmington and Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Steam Plant, which the company retired in November.

One of Lemly’s more recent projects focused on the Sutton plant, a study of fish deformities he prepared for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The study bolstered that group’s lawsuit questioning coal ash handling practices at that 60-year-old plant, which was run by Progress Energy before it merged with Duke.

Lemly estimated $217 million in damage to fish and wildlife in a partial analysis of smaller species in the lake. He couldn’t find enough properly sized bass and larger species for a full-blown assessment, he said.

The accident that polluted the Dan River three weeks ago differed from what happened at the Wilmington lake and the majority of 23 incidents covered in his EPA study two years ago, Lemly said. At sites from Texas to Ohio, the selenium in coal ash was heavily diluted in wastewater, discharged into a lake or river at levels that environmental officials mistakenly thought were harmless, he said.

But when a stormwater drain collapses, as it did near the Eden plant Feb. 2, “the ash itself comes into the river and poisons the habitat,” Lemly said. “You’ve got untold stretches of the river that are blanketed by huge volumes of ash.”

And if anyone knows what a bad thing that could be, it’s Dennis Lemly.

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