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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  • recontwice Feb 26, 2014

    With a $70 million starting point I wouldnt be surprised that it doesnt end up being at least triple that!!

  • midnightclay Feb 26, 2014

    Here's an idea - forget spending that kind of money on the cleanup and do something worth while with it.
    Or.... lets get several sealed estimates to without announcing the results till they are all in and see what kind of variation we get.

  • downtowner Feb 26, 2014

    So the DENR decides that Duke deserves to pay a fine of $90,000 while the total cost is just now being predicted at a conservative $70M. Sounds fair to me. I'd invest in Duke Energy stock, they are be invincible.

  • Greg Boop Feb 26, 2014
    user avatar

    Oh, don't worry. Governor McCrory sent Duke Energy a letter. We all good now?

  • Greg Boop Feb 26, 2014
    user avatar

    After refusing to force Duke Energy to take any action to clean up these coal ash ponds, McCrory's DENR will fine them $99,000 and not make them fix the problem - that should balance out the $70,000,000 plus economic impact, eh?

  • John Paul Bertke Feb 26, 2014
    user avatar

    "Among the issues not well understood is the presence of radioactive elements in the ash."

    Interesting remark, given that standard hydraulic fracturing ("FRACKING") recipes include radioactive tracers and over 600 other chemicals.

    I hope that "fracking" is off the table now, given these staggering if very preliminary cost estimates for the coal ash disasters.

  • Fenway O'Donnell Feb 26, 2014
    user avatar

    So, we don't like coal ash and ILOVEDOWNTOWNRALEIGH does not like fracking. What then do we use? Nuclear?

    Oh, wait a second. I guess opponents of fossil fuels only want to use solar, right? Anyone notice that it gets dark at night? Solar does not work at night.

    Come on folks, let's get real on what we can and cannot realistically use to generate electricity.

  • Rebelyell55 Feb 26, 2014

    Luv2Camp Feb 26, 7:21 p.m.

    So, we don't like coal ash
    .........That's not the issue, the issue is that while making the billions in profits, the company failed to take care of it's "trash" like any other company would. Instead they left it around, and now are expected to clean it up, but, they'll do it using tax dollars and rate increases. All the while they should of being taking care of it. But no, they stick the cost in with profit and try and igorne it and hope nothing happens. So something happen ,and now they're like oh no, we'll take care of it, some time or another, and oh, by the way, we'll need to the cost on to the consumers, even if they did pay for this one time already.

  • Terry Watts Feb 26, 2014
    user avatar

    Make duke pay!

  • Rebelyell55 Feb 26, 2014

    Oh I forgot, they're the only place some people can get electricity, so they certainly can "do as they wish", ya ain't got no choice.