Year after ash spill, state of Dan River in dispute

Posted January 30, 2015

— 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. 

Pete Harrison looks at core samples 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.  

Pete Harrison looks at core samples 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.


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  • Tommy Swan Feb 1, 2015
    user avatar

    we all know that if you drink this water everyday you'll likely die in 70-80 years.... too clean this up we should remove all the underground coal in the world

  • Jackson Smith Jan 31, 2015
    user avatar

    Been a year and our wonderful General Assembly has not moved a finger to get anything done. Fine Duke for their spill, NEVER. They are Pat's boys. This is beyond belief. Why were some of these people elected to another term. We must be the ones that are lacking in brains!

  • Russell Chapman Jan 31, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Approximately 40% of coal ash is recycled, but recycling has its pitfalls as well. Recycling coal ash isn't regulated so it could be a "dump in disguise". These new materials with ash in them are not desired products either. Fully encapsulated products such as brick or even bowling balls fair better on the market than non encapsulated products like drywall. Seems no one wants the stuff in their products.
    Changes at the federal level are needed to make this ash a regulated material. Once that happens, Duke hands will be tied.
    Lets not forget also, that a majority of these sites Duke inherited from Progress Energy, who inherited them from CP&L. If they are guilty of anything, its not vetting their purchase of Progress.

  • Mary Jo Holmes Jan 31, 2015
    user avatar

    Everyone should be concerned about their water in North Carolina. During the gold rush days they poured mercury into the streams to flush out the gold. And people who get their water from wells are not in the clear-one of the risk factors in Parkinson's disease is getting your drinking water from a well. Where do you think all of the herbicides and pesticides go to?

  • sandtaxedenoughalready Jan 31, 2015

    Clay is sticky and pollutants adhere to it. But the pollutants are still there. The environmental officials are correct in that stirring it up can release toxins but it is disingenous to say that such a short round of testing over 1 year can declare the river "safe". You need more data. There is a little too much of the go along with Duke E. to get along mentality at DENR these days.

  • Harvo Jan 31, 2015

    View quoted thread

    that's dishonest.

    That is not how it went down.

  • Harvo Jan 31, 2015

    & then y'all reelected these people.


  • AnonyMouseLOL Jan 31, 2015

    View quoted thread


    If you know all that, then maybe you'll answer me one question I've had since the spill.

    Why wasn't all this recycled? If kept dry, it can easily be recycled into asphalt and cement/concrete products. So why wasn't it?

    These ash ponds were a way of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, leaving it for someone else to deal with years down the road, and that's just plain stupid.

  • AnonyMouseLOL Jan 31, 2015

    I don't believe the DENR anymore. IMO, they were a part of allowing this mess to build up, letting it continue for years until the spill brought it all to light to the rest of us, and someone(s) there should have lost their jobs because of it.

  • Russell Chapman Jan 31, 2015
    user avatar

    Not to mention this ash was fly ash, not the more "toxic" containing bottom ash in the boiler hoppers that are now being demolished at sites such as the Lee Plant in Goldsboro, the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure or the Buck Plant in Rowan County. The Buck plant and Cape Fear plant came on line in the 1920's. Ash ponds at these sites have existed for decades adjacent to major rivers, within floodplains.
    I was here during Hurricane Fran and Floyd and you can't tell me the Cape Fear river didn't flood near Moncure and wash fly ash into the water. Never mind the flood events since the 1920's.