Dan River Coal Ash Disaster Near Eden, North Carolina

Guest Blog | February 4, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
The Dan River's banks are coated with coal ash and the river runs dark grey a day after the spill began. Source: Appalachian Voices.

Since the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster we have often asked “when and where will it happen again”?  On Monday, February 3, 2014 we got an unfortunate answer when a stormwater pipe (that Duke apparently didn’t know was there) burst beneath a coal ash impoundment at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Power Station near Eden, North Carolina. Duke Energy estimates that between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of wastewater have run into the Dan River.

That amount of ash is enough to fill 20-32 Olympic-sized swimming pools, for comparison the Kingston TVA disaster dumped over 1 billion gallons of ash into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. Here you can find an index of current information on the disaster, which ranks as the third largest coal ash spill in US history.

Two days after this latest coal ash spill, many questions are still unanswered and we call on Duke Energy to immediately address these concerns and follow the lead of their South Carolina counterparts to move away from antiquated, dangerous coal ash disposal practices. Both Duke and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have failed to release a definitive update on the spill’s status or give adequate notice to downstream communities that may be affected. Duke didn’t notify the public for 26 hours after the spill was discovered  and communities downstream are still not being told of the risk of heavy metals in drinking water.

Six miles downstream, Danville, Virginia draws its drinking water from the Dan River and while officials there have stated they have treated drinking water for ash contamination, no details of the treatment have been released to the public.

The latest report from DENR downplays the fact that the spill is ongoing, stating:

Duke Energy reports that a temporary plug periodically mitigated the leakage into the Dan River throughout the day Monday, and a team of experts continued to work on a solution to completely stop the release.

Gullies in the Dan River coal ash impoundment show where ash flowed toward the river. Source: John D. Simmons, Charlotte Observer

According to Coal Ash Chronicles, a source inside North Carolina state government describes in greater detail Duke and DENR’s attempts to resolve the problem. The source stated, “they had tried to plug the line a few times but the head pressure was blowing it out, but [they were] working on putting more in…” late this afternoon. He added that he fears the planned solutions won’t work because it “could build so much back pressure and blow under the dam.” In other words, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the Dan River coal ash dam that breached is not out of the question. According to Coal Ash Chronicles’ source, Duke’s plan is to cover the repair with cement, and that the unlined coal ash pond will likely continue to leak until that happens.

According to eye witnesses, the spill is still ongoing as of Tuesday afternoon, with a dark grey plume of coal ash running into the river. There are 216 million gallons of coal ash onsite at two impoundments at the Dan River Power Station. After the Kingston disaster, the Dan River ash impoundments were classified by the EPA as high hazard, meaning that failure of the impoundment could cause catastrophic consequences to downstream communities and aquatic ecosystems.

We are also concerned about the lack of information about which contaminants, and at what concentrations, have been dumped into the Dan River. DENR has taken water samples, though details about those tests and results have yet to be released. Riverkeepers and other activist groups like Appalachian Voices are are on the ground gathering independent water quality data and taking pictures of the disaster as it unfolds. Click here to see some of those pictures.

A young angler with Smallmouth bass caught on the Dan River. Coal ash contains elevated concentrations of toxic heavy metals that can wildlife and people who eat contaminated fish. Photo Source: NC River Angler

This most recent coal ash disaster is a tragic reminder of the need for comprehensive coal ash regulations. No federal regulations exist even though coal ash is our nation’s second largest waste stream and reads like a “who’s who list” of toxic heavy metals that are extremely dangerous to humans and aquatic ecosystems. Throughout the Southeast at least 450 dumpsites similar to those on the Dan River hold enough coal ash to cover 275,000 football fields one foot deep.

States continue to fail to protect communities and precious water resources from this toxic threat, evidenced by the fact that the state of North Carolina has not required corrective action of groundwater pollution at all 14 of the state’s coal-fired power plants.

Please stay tuned as more information becomes available on the Dan River coal ash disaster. For the latest updates, please  follow Southeast Coal Ash on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

The Institute for Southern Studies just released a blog breaking down this disaster by the numbers, here are some highlights:

  • Estimated tons of coal ash — which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury,  and radioactive elements — that were released to the river: 50,000 to 82,000
  • Number of rail cars the toxic pollution could fill: 413 to 677
  • Rank of the spill among the largest coal ash spills in U.S. history: 3
  • Hours that Duke Energy waited from the time it discovered the spill to report it to the public: 26
  • Number of coal-fired power plants that Duke Energy owns across North Carolina: 14
  • Percent of those plants where there have been unpermitted discharges of coal ash to the environment: 100
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