Researcher: $70M 'starting point' for coal ash spill impact on NC economy

Posted February 26, 2014

Coal ash

— 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. 

But, he said, there are other toxins in coal ash that make it problematic. Among the issues not well understood is the presence of radioactive elements in the ash.

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.


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  • Richard Eskridge Feb 28, 2014
    user avatar

    ...Republicans are literally doing everything they can to destroy this state...

    Not true. The story specifically points out that the coal ash problem has been around for decades through both Republican and democratic administrations.

    A big problem IS that Duke Energy is essentially a monopoly in this area. You either pay them or get by with solar panels and windmills.

    The problem I have with my own party is that they think that wanting to have a glass of clean drinking water from our own faucets is a liberal idea. The far right entirely fails to realize that the defense and preservation of the environment for everyone is a practical idea. There is nothing liberal about that. it is just common sense.

    Duke Energy ought to voluntarily step up, admit fault and clean it up. Seriously, this is their community too. Or is the long-term plan to poison everybody with coal ash deposits? Well, that is certainly one way to drive away customers and diminish profit margins.

  • Garry Spears Feb 28, 2014
    user avatar

    Why don't we send the Duke executives and their politician buddies to that river with a straw to clean this up! I can't wait till fracking comes to NC, and then drilling for oil of the NC coast. Republicans are literally doing everything they can to destroy this state. You can't drink money!!!

  • miseem Feb 27, 2014

    View quoted thread

    But corporations are people. Therefore, they are humans. They have all the rights and privileges of a person. That's according to the right wing dominated US Supreme Court. But how do you put a corporation in jail? I guess they have all the rights of a US citizen, just not all the responsibilities or liabilities.

  • miseem Feb 27, 2014

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    That's what I've always said. With Medicare/Medicaid, EPA regulations, any other government organization - from federal to your city, you at least have a vote. What vote do you have with Blue Cross? Time Warner Cable? Duke Power is supposedly a regulated monopoly, but the money's on their side when decisions are made.

  • Rebelyell55 Feb 27, 2014

    The really sad part of this is that, 85% of Duke consumers don't have a clue what's going on and what cost they're getting ready to be hit with.

  • Pensive01 Feb 27, 2014

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    Actually they're worse than the government, because nobody can run candidates against them, to try and get them out of out of office.

  • common tater Feb 27, 2014

    So as usual this problem gets ignored till it's a huge out-of-control mess and the media gets involved. I'd bet big money there's Duke managers and executives that over the past 30+ years have gotten bonuses, pay raises, promotions, etc. for the great job they did managing the coal ash. Monopoly companies are just like the government...they have no long-term vision and no incentive to get one.

  • Jackson Smith Feb 27, 2014
    user avatar

    I used to canoe and kayak the Dan every year but I will need to find a new river now. The group that provided the boats and transportation for us will be out of business in short order. Thanks Duke.

  • goldenosprey Feb 27, 2014

    "I think that the bigger story is who will ultimately end up paying for this mess?" ospreysilver

    Other than the fish & wildlife and those who live near the river? Why Duke customers of course! You don't think the execs and major stockholders there are gonna be doing their own laundry and driving Hyundais over this, do ya?

  • ospreysilver Feb 27, 2014

    I think that the bigger story is who will ultimately end up paying for this mess? Duke Energy will pay for a grand environmental clean-up response, big boats and bulldozers will line the river, but it won’t fix the pollution! And, if you own land near the “Black River of Death” good luck selling your house. Say what you want but thousands of companies have been sued and forced to clean-up chemical and pollution spills, but I don’t know of a single one that can say it’s 100% safe to drink the water, eat the fish, or let your children play in the area today! And, even after the duct tape environmental cleanup initiative somehow I just don’t see Duke Energy taking the billion dollar loss on the chin and walking away. Most likely my energy bill will gradually increase an additional 5-10% to make up for the loss. Its like in Russia where they execute you, then send your family the bill for the bullet.