A 4,000-gallon spill of potentially toxic coal ash sludge mostly missed the Potomac River and doesn't appear to have done much harm, a Maryland environmental official said Tuesday.
"Any spill of coal ash is very serious, but it does seem like it will be of relatively limited impact, that it was a minor leak," said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
She said papermaker NewPage Corp., which owns the leaky pipeline over the river's North Branch, must tell state regulators within five days how it plans to prevent future spills. The agency is considering fining the company, Stoltzfus said.
Patricia R. Koontz, a spokeswoman for Miamisburg, Ohio-based NewPage, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the company will improve how it maintains ash pipelines.
Stoltzfus said the bulk of the sludge spilled onto the West Virginia river bank across from NewPage's mill in Luke, about 210 miles upstream from Washington. Workers were expected to finish cleaning the stream bank Tuesday, Stoltzfus said.
She said a minor amount of sludge caused discoloration in the river about 30 feet downstream, with no sign of harm to any fish. The spill also was not expected to taint any drinking water supplies.
Both Stoltzfus and Koontz said the dime-sized hole in the 8-inch diameter, carbon-steel pipe probably was created by the abrasive mixture of ash and water moving through it.
The ash comes from coal the company burns to power the mill. Three 800-foot pipelines carry the ash to a 1.2 million gallon storage lagoon across 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.
Koontz said the company reported a smaller leak of about 20 gallons from one of the ash pipelines in November.
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.
Since the Tennessee coal ash spill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it 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.
In a letter sent Monday to 61 power companies, the EPA sought information about the estimated 300 coal ash storage ponds and landfills nationwide. The review doesn't include non-utility power plants like NewPage, but EPA may expand its inquiry, EPA spokeswoman Latisha Petteway said.
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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