Researcher: $70M 'starting point' for coal ash spill impact on NC economy
Posted February 26
Raleigh, N.C. — Damage from the Feb. 2 coal ash spill on the Dan River could add up to $70 million as "a starting point," says one researcher who studies how pollution affects water and wildlife.
"The impact value of the damage is going to be at least $1 million a mile," said Dennis Lemly, a Wake Forrest University professor who also serves as a fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service.
The coal ash spill dumped 30,000 to 40,000 tons of ash into the river, affecting some 70 miles of stream bed, according to observations by state and federal regulators responding to the spill.
Lemly's cost estimate, which does not include how much it will take to clean up the spill, was first reported by the Greensboro News & Record.
He told WRAL News on Wednesday that the costs could well exceed $70 million, depending on the long-term impact of the spill. Among the factors Lemly considers in his cost calculations are:
- The number of fish killed. Economic formulas put a cost of $8 to $20 per fish, and the number of fish killed could be in the "hundreds of thousands, if not millions."
- "The blackening effect of the ash on the river bottom, which has essentially created a graveyard," he said. Non-mobile aquatic species, such as mussels, as well as hibernating creatures, such as frogs and salamanders, will be affected by the coating.
- Effects from the spill will drive away kayakers, swimmers and others who use the river for recreation.
- Costs associated with those who are no longer able to use the river for subsistence fishing.
- Lower property values associated with the contamination in the river.
The costs and damage done by prior spills also play a part in coming up with a cost estimate, he said.
Lemly said that problems associated with coal ash ponds go back decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations dating to the 1970s tenure of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt and Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser.
His own research has focused on selenium, an element in coal ash that does the most damage to fish. Selenium causes deformities in fish and makes it hard for them to reproduce.
He also pointed to the work of other scientists who show that coal ash can affect reproduction of non-fish species. Frogs, turtles and birds can be affected even when a coal ash pond isn't leaking.
"It's a toxic soup, there's no question about that," he said.
There are 14 coal ash sites throughout North Carolina, some with multiple ponds. Lemly, like other researchers, said the ideal solution would be for the state to move the ash to lined landfills, where it could not leach into groundwater or be a threat to spill into local streams.
North Carolina regulators and Gov. Pat McCrory have signaled they will move aggressively with regards to the ponds. In a letter Tuesday, McCrory and Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla demanded to know Duke Energy's plans for the ponds across the state.
"As a state, we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water," McCrory wrote.