DANVILLE, Va. (AP) — Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday he expects Duke Energy to fully compensate Virginia for a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River that turned collection basins at Danville's water treatment plant gray.
McAuliffe spoke after he toured the city's treatment plant and was assured the drinking water for 18,000 customers were well within safe-drinking standards based on multiple municipal, federal and independent water testing.
"I'm going to have a little glass of water myself," McAuliffe said at the conclusion of the tour of the plant, which overlooks the Dan River.
Despite questions about Duke's handling of the Feb. 2 spill, McAuliffe said Duke executives had assured him they would make good on any costs associated with the spill in Virginia. The spill coated 70 miles of the Dan River, which crosses both states, with toxic sludge.
"I have assurances from Duke Energy that they're going to pay for everything," McAuliffe said. "I take them at their word. No reason not to."
In North Carolina, a federal grand jury was to convene Tuesday as part of a widening criminal investigation sparked by the spill, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River with the toxic sludge.
Environmental groups are pressuring North Carolina regulators and lawmakers to compel Duke to clean up leaky, unlined ash pits polluting state waters. They contain a toxic stew of arsenic, selenium, lead and other poisonous contaminants found in coal ash.
Virginia has 11 ash coal pits, and they have all undergone state and Environmental Protection Agency inspections to ensure a similar environmental mess won't occur, said David K. Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. He said five of the impoundments are scheduled to be retired.
Paylor said some deficiencies were found and "the owners got on (them) pretty quickly and made the corrections." One impoundment had a storm drain beneath it, similar to the North Carolina impoundment in Eden, and it was being monitored by cameras. He said it was located in southwest Virginia.
Paylor, who was to be the lead state official at the public meeting later Tuesday, said the inspections were done within the last several years.
McAuliffe agreed with Paylor's statement last week that Duke would be held accountable for any remediation as a result of the spill in Virginia.
The state is taking a long-term look at the impact of the spill, testing fish and other marine life, among other work that "is ongoing and continues to be ongoing." He said a full environmental assessment might not be known for years. Testing on fish, for example, might not reflect certain contaminants for years to come.
"In the long term, we have to evaluate what the damage to the river was, what the damage to recreation was, the damage to fisheries," Paylor said. "I don't expect them to be lasting forever. Much of the coal ash will eventually be buried with other sedimentation."
Paylor and McAuliffe declined to speculate on the ultimate costs.
"It's going to take time," McAuliffe said. "I think the DEQ is going to be working on this two, three, four years. We don't know at this point."
Asked if he would seek more stringent regulations on coal ash impoundments, McAuliffe said he would leave that call to DEQ.
Barry T. Dunkley, the director of the treatment plant, said the coal ash in the Dan was visible the day after the spill. He said not only could it be seen in the river, but in the gray ash that collected in basins at the treatment plant.
Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said he was pleased to see McAuliffe and Paylor in Danville, which is about 20 miles downriver from the spill.
"We know that there's only so much they can do at this point, but we're happy to know he's at the front of the issue," Lester said of McAuliffe. "This is a long-term issue."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.