RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — State environmental officials are reviewing the dozen coal ash ponds in Virginia following a massive spill along the Dan River in North Carolina as water quality tests concluded Tuesday treatment plants are effectively removing toxins from public water supplies in Danville and South Boston.
The state Department of Environmental Quality, which is coordinating Virginia's response to the spill, has found no evidence of fish kills or other obvious environmental consequences from the spill about 20 miles upriver from Danville and is taking a longer view on problems that could emerge.
"DEQ's focus is on possible long-term environmental impacts from the coal ash, as no immediate environmental concerns have been observed or reported," said William Hayden, a spokesman for the department.
Testing will continue of water and sediment samples from the Dan River. The river was considered an impaired waterway even before the spill, meaning anglers who take fish from the river were already advised to limit the consumption of their catch.
The inspection of the impoundment ponds involves reviews to ensure that periodic inspections are being conducted and that none are leaking, Hayden said. The ponds are primarily located in the state's Tidewater area and southwest Virginia, the state's so-called coalfields region. The review does not include physical inspections, he said.
The North Carolina spill occurred at a 27-acre toxic waste pond, spewing up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. It turned the waterway gray and cloudy for miles.
The spill, discovered by a security guard Feb. 2, is the third largest in U.S. history.
The Virginia Department of Health has conducted sampling at Danville and South Boston, the two communities downriver from the spill, and found that public drinking water was at "acceptable" levels.
"They're all well within state and federal standards," said John Aulbach, director of the office of drinking water.
"If you compare the sample results that were in the water versus the finished water, the heavy metals are being removed and the water plant is doing what it's supposed to do," he said. "The consumers will see no difference in water quality."
The Environmental Protection Agency has also conducted testing and was meeting Tuesday with Danville residents and community leaders.
The federal agency's tests have confirmed that the toxins detected in the river are successfully being filtered out of the city's drinking water, said Patricia Taylor, EPA community involvement coordinator.
The slurry released into the Dan River has been found to contain heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium and cadmium. Evidence of those contaminants is on the decline, Aulbach said.
"Right now, the raw water samples from the Dan River have significantly dropped off in heavy metal concentrations and are close approximately to what would be considered the norm of the contamination level in the river," he said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center said the North Carolina spill is cause to reconsider where so-called slurry pounds are located and how they are constructed.
"Given the damage to Virginia waters that has already occurred, the best option for mitigating future harm is to move the toxic ash out of these unlined, earthen pits and into dry, lined landfills away from the rivers and lakes we rely on for drinking water and recreation," said Cale Jaffe, director of the law center.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has spoken with his counterpart in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory, and reached out to municipal leaders in South Boston and Danville. He also sent his secretary of natural resources, Molly Ward, to Danville on Tuesday.
"He is monitoring this very closely," McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.