Milton, N.C. — Pete Harrison dipped a long PVC tube through the brown water of the Dan River on Friday, pushing past layers of sediment into the semisolid clay that lines the bottom of the river. Carefully withdrawing the tube and knocking the dripping contents onto a white, rectangular plate in front of him, he points to a portion that is grayer, darker and more granular than the rest of the material.
That gray stuff is coal ash, a small sample of the 39,000 tons that spewed from a Duke Energy retention pond on Feb. 2, 2014.
Uncertainty clouds coal ash picture one year after spill "It has a smell you'll never get off," said Harrison, a lawyer with the Waterkeeper Alliance, part of an array of environmental groups concerned about the effects of the year-old spill.
A few minutes earlier, officials with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources stood on the same boat ramp near Milton, a town close to the Virginia border, and dipped a few water samples out of the river. While the coal ash sediment lurking on the riverbed is still a concern, they said, much of the danger from the spill has passed.
"Certainly, the indications from the testing indicate that things have come back remarkably quickly, and we'll continue the monitoring to make sure that, in fact, is happening," DENR Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said.
Environmental advocates like Harrison are less sanguine. He said that the state and federal governments should continue to warn people about the danger posed by the ash on the bottom of the river.
"Even one year after the spill, there’s still a lingering danger to downstream communities since the contaminants remain in the sediment, exposing people and aquatic life to toxic heavy metals," he said.
Less than 10 percent is removed
Of all the material that spilled into the river, only about 3,000 tons – or less than 10 percent – has been removed from the bottom at select locations. The remainder, is spread over a 70-mile stretch starting in Eden and winding across the Virginia-North Carolina border four times before reaching Milton. Neighbors report seeing a sliver slick after the spill that obscured the river's normal light brown color for days.
That ash has been sandwiched between a layer of clay and sediment already on the bottom of the river and a new layer of sediment that has settled since the spill. Although it is covered now, the coal ash is not hard to find with a probe like Harrison's or by a curious child digging in the muck while his or her father unloads a boat from a trailer.
Coal ash is the material left after coal is burned for fuel. Although much of the gritty material is inert, it contains toxins such as mercury, lead, selenium and cadmium. Those materials can harm humans and build up in fish and other wildlife that swim in the river or drink from it.
Duke officials say they have followed the directions given to them by both DENR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In response to a question about whether federal officials were satisfied with the coal ash cleanup, an EPA spokesman simply referred to a fact sheet issued by the agency. It varies slightly with accounts given by Duke and DENR in that it says 4,000 tons of coal ash, not 3,000, have been removed from the river.
EPA has also required Duke to monitor the river, and after two sets of samples were analyzed last year, the agency "determined that there continues to be no exceedances of human health or ecological screening thresholds for contaminants associated with coal ash."
Asked why more wasn't done to remove ash from the bottom of the river, DENR Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder said that removing the ash from the river bottom would also mean removing new, natural sediment that had settled and potentially stir the toxin-laced ash back into the water.
"We made the decision not to do any more in conjunction with our federal partners ... because we felt that trying to dredge up material that was in a very thin sheen on the bottom would do more harm to the natural environment than good. The Fish and Wildlife Service and federal EPA agreed with that."
Harrison does not.
He said both the state and federal governments should continue to post health warnings along the river. It is too soon, he said, to say that the water is completely safe to drink and fish from the river are safe to eat.
"To say that we're somehow supposed to rest easier and feel safer because there's a couple of inches of natural river sediment on top of it (the coal ash), I don't think the people can accept that," he said.
The state and Duke, Harrison said, should monitor the river much more closely. "I'd say more needs to be known."
That said, he acknowledged that it may not be possible to remove all of the sediment or guard against all of the effects of the spill.
"Some of the impacts are going to be irreversible," he said.