Report: DENR knew about pipe but didn’t inspect it

Coal ash from the former Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station spills into the Dan River. (Waterkeeper Alliance)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources failed to act on several dam-safety inspection reports that recommended close monitoring of the 48-inch pipe that caused the Dan River ash spill, according to interviews with state utility and regulatory officials and documents obtained through public-records requests.

DENR officials in Raleigh reviewed the inspection reports by independent consultants, according to the documents and email exchanges with Steve McEvoy, a dam safety engineer, and Sam Watson, the general counsel of the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Although DENR officials in the Raleigh central office knew about the recommendations, they did not forward the reports to inspectors in the Winston-Salem regional office – or any regional office – charged with ensuring that the Duke Energy power plant in Rockingham County was complying with federal and state environmental-protection laws.

The reports stayed in the Raleigh central office.

State environmental regulators discovered after the spill that they had not inspected the pipe. Duke Energy officials did not immediately know what material it was made of – first it was concrete and then it was corrugated metal, a weak material for a pipe that ran under a 27-acre coal-waste pond.

For decades, the pipe had been under DENR’s nose.

As early as 1986, an inspection report identified the pipe as being made of corrugated metal, a material that is known to corrode more easily than others when it comes in contact with coal ash. At least three other dam-safety inspection reports conducted between 1998 and 2007 said the pipe should be checked for turbidity, the telltale sign of pipe erosion.

“The appearance of turbidity would make it advisable to perform a TV camera inspection of the pipe to help determine if the leak or leaks are a threat,” the reports said.

In 2009 and 2012, when water-quality inspectors based in the Winston-Salem office went to inspect the power plant for storm water discharges, they did not inspect the pipe. They had not received the inspection reports, and they were working with a permit that did not list the pipe.

Field inspectors use permits as a map and menu of things to check. If it isn’t in the permit, it probably won’t get inspected, local DENR officials said.

The pipe was also missing from topographical maps that inspectors use as a guide.

In the end, the DENR water-quality inspections reports of 2009 and 2012 make no reference to the storm-water pipe, according to the documents.

On Feb. 2, the pipe failed.

Instead of releasing storm water into the Dan River, the pipe released up to 39,000 tons of sludge-like coal waste, according to Duke Energy’s estimates. The pipe’s collapse also triggered a federal investigation, turned the once pristine river gray and affected farmers, fish and recreational areas along the river for as many as 70 miles.

On Feb. 28, DENR issued a notice of violation to Duke Energy for failing to apply for the permit it was supposed to have to release storm water through that pipe – for decades – into the Dan River.

Last week, DENR said it had found eight more corrugated metal pipes at Duke power plants statewide.

Oversight changed over the years

Before 2010, state law exempted dams owned by utilities such as Duke Energy from being inspected by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Duke’s power plants fell under the purview of another state agency, the N.C. Utilities Commission, which sets utility rates.

Still, in 1976, the utilities commission required that Duke perform a comprehensive inspection by an independent consultant every five years.

Duke Energy was given wide leeway to monitor itself – including the dam holding in the coal-waste pond next to the Dan River and the 48-inch pipe running underneath it.

All the while, the utilities commission routinely sent the five-year inspection reports to DENR.

“We don’t have a dam-safety engineer on staff at the utilities commission, and DENR had agreed to make their dam safety experts available to us. So when we would receive the five-year inspection report from the utility, we would forward them over to the … dam safety folks,” said Sam Watson, the NCUC general counsel.

DENR officials not only received the reports but also agreed to review them, according to a 1982 memorandum of understanding between the utilities commission and the environmental regulator.

“The Utilities Commission’s policy of requiring an inspection of these dams by an independent engineer at least once every five years is a sound one,” wrote Charles Gardner, the chief of DENR’s Land Quality Section, in the 1982 memo.

“It provides for more detailed and thorough inspections than could be accomplished by State personnel with existing manpower resources. Review of the inspection reports by the State’s Dam Safety personnel would be appropriate,” Gardner wrote.

McEvoy was listed as one of the recipients of the letter.

“The Land Quality Section will review the inspection reports and will provide the Public Staff with our judgements (sic) regarding the qualifications of the inspectors, the details of the reports, and the recommendations provided in the reports,” Gardner wrote.

‘Pass-the-blame hot potato’

Offering a reason why the reports were not sent from the central office in Raleigh to the regional office in Winston-Salem, McEvoy said that they were sent by the utilities commission to the central office for a review.

“This was a courtesy review as LQS did not receive jurisdiction over these dam until Jan. 1, 2010,” he said in an email.

“The report recommendations were for the owner (Duke Energy). … No inspections were done prior to this date as there was no statutory authority to inspect,” McEvoy said.

The reports could have played a role in protecting the Dan River, according to Amy Adams, a former DENR supervisor who resigned last year to work with the conservation group Appalachian Voices in Boone.

Adams said the sharing of information among different DENR divisions does not happen as much as people might think. Unfortunately, she said, the state agency does not have enough people to handle the workload in the time they have and that’s part of the reason things fall through the cracks.

In the end, the failure to pass along the inspection reports to DENR inspectors exposes just one aspect of how the state’s environmental safety net did not work.

“This seems to be a passionate game of ‘pass-the-blame hot potato.’ What if we just recognized that there are little pieces of blame at the feet of lots of people? There were many missed opportunities and the cumulative effect of a myriad of decisions by many people which landed us where we are today,” Adams said.

A simple TV inspection of pipes is common practice, Adams said. Duke Energy officials did not do one because, they said, their inspections did not detect turbidity flowing from the pipe, even in the days before the ash spill. Still, Duke Energy should have sent a TV camera up the pipe regardless of whether any turbidity was spotted over the years, according to Sen. Austin Allran, R-Hickory.

On Feb. 17, a little more than two weeks after the coal ash spill, during a meeting of the state General Assembly’s bicameral Environmental Review Commission, Allran said that corrugated metal pipe is known to fail.

Allran sharply questioned why it had not been inspected internally.

“It’s not a question of, ‘Are they going to break?’ It’s just a question of when. And so then you put an ash pond over corrugated pipe and obviously the corrugated pipe broke and you have ash in the river. So that’s kind of dumb, it seems like. Why didn’t you put a camera up there to check it out? That would cost about $1,000 or something,” Allran said.