About 4,000 gallons of potentially toxic fly ash sludge spilled into the Potomac River after a pipeline ruptured at a coal-burning power plant, Maryland environmental officials said Tuesday.
Workers on Tuesday were cleaning up the spill on the West Virginia bank of the river's North Branch. The spill began about 8 p.m. Sunday and continued until 6 a.m. Monday, said Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
She said the dime-sized hole was discovered by employees of NewPage Corp., which burns coal to produce electricity for its paper mill in Luke, about 150 miles west of Baltimore. The company stores the coal ash, also called fly ash, in a lagoon fed by three parallel pipelines that cross the river.
The spill was small compared with December's billion-gallon spill of coal ash sludge in Kingston, Tenn. Still, Maryland state regulators were concerned about a potential environmental threat from the sludge, which could contain high concentrations of selenium, sulfate, arsenic, iron or manganese.
"Obviously, fly ash is not something that one wants in the water," said Harley Speir, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.
The North Branch defines the Maryland-West Virginia state line for more 60 miles from Maryland's western boundary to Oldtown, where it joins the South Branch to form the main stem of the Potomac. All the Potomac except the South Branch is owned and regulated by the state of Maryland.
The shutdown of the damaged pipeline didn't affect mill operations, said Patricia R. Koontz, spokeswoman for Miamisburg, Ohio-based NewPage.
Since the Tennessee spill, Environmental Protection Agency officials have said they would draft rules for the currently unregulated storage and disposal of coal fly ash. The latest Energy Department data shows that 721 power plants nationwide produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash in 2005.
The EPA has long recognized coal ash as a risk to human health and the environment and knows of 67 cases where it is known or suspected of causing water pollution.
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