Dan River Coal Ash Spill: Long-Term Impact Unknown
It was a year ago when a stormwater pipe beneath an unlined ash pond broke at a retired Duke Energy plant, releasing more than 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina.
Jenny Edwards with the Dan River Basin Association remembers when she first saw the spill.
The water had turned black.
“To see the river run that color for so many days was overwhelming, disconcerting and frankly it changed me forever,” says Edwards.
The third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history raised immediate health concerns about drinking water for surrounding communities and the environmental impact. But the final toll of what happened on the Dan could take years to find out.
"Beneath The Surface"
Brian Williams, a scientist with the Dan River Basin Association, stands at the Draper Landing access point--a popular place for fishing and kayaking. The water here is slightly murky and calm, despite the recent winter rains. He pushes a metal pole deep into the river bottom to collect a sample.
“That’s a good core sample right there and you can obviously see the difference just visually. Here are normal sediment samples, you can see the brown and you see pieces of mica and quartz -- and then take a look at this sample right here and what do you see? Mostly coal ash. It’s really compacted, dark gray and black,” says Williams.
That coal ash is filled with toxins like arsenic, lead and selenium. Last summer, Duke Energy completed a cleanup that removed around 4,000 tons of coal ash in areas that were close to drinking water intake sites, including a large one in Danville, Virginia. But around 35,000 tons still remain, diluted and now underneath layers of sediment.
"The River Is Safe"
But Duke Energy says recent studies show the river is recovering and the company is still cleaning. Jeff Brooks says they’re removing coal ash from some of the ponds or basins near the river and are looking for new ways to store the waste to prevent future accidents.
“And that could include beneficial reuse options. It could include excavating and taking it to another landfill or potentially some options near the plant site itself,” says Brooks. “We are doing extensive engineering to determine what the best options are for the remaining ash at all of our sites.”
Legislation passed last August gives Duke until 2029 to close all 33 of its North Carolina ponds. They must also remove the ash at four power plants and cap low-risk sites.
Right now, The EPA says the river is safe for recreation and other activities. But more testing is needed. Kenneth Rhame says the agency is conducting quarterly testing through July to monitor the river.
“Based on the analysis in the last two rounds of sampling, we have seen no health risk exceedances or ecological risk exceedances,” says Rhame. “We will keep monitoring, and see what happens with the next two samples. We meet with a technical group once a month to discuss whether or not we should change our sample locations and we will have to wait and see.”
"It's A Waiting Game"
But Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center says he’s not sure the river is safe. He’s seen the devastation that coal ash pollution can do across the country and he’s concerned that over time, it could get into the water supply.
“In Wilmington for example, the local water utility is having to abandon groundwater as the source of drinking water for a community there. Individuals have found contaminants in their drinking water wells and in at least one incident in North Carolina, the state has ordered the utility to deliver bottled water to a home,” says Holleman.
Brian Williams with the Dan River Basin Association says it will be a long road ahead before we know all the ways the spill will impact the environment.
“Is it going to affect the mussels and clams that filter out the water? Is it going to affect the fish, the wildlife, the birds, everything that lives along the river? We just don’t know right now. It is a waiting game to see,” says Williams.
In the meantime, his organization is partnering with six universities to do their own independent research. He throws out a metal bucket to dredge more samples from the river’s bottom, which is something he expects to be doing for quite some time.
Follow Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news