Dan River Disaster Recap Timeline

Guest Blog | March 14, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
Coal ash eddies in the Dan River. Photo source: Appalachian Voices

Having trouble keeping track of all the developments since the Dan River disaster began over a month ago? We continue to be amazed that the coal ash spill and subsequent developments have been in the news almost every day. This story has more twists and turns than the Dan River itself; sparking significant public outcry, a federal investigation into Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Gov. McCrory’s request for Duke’s coal ash plans and more. Keeping up with the latest developments has been challenging, so  we compiled this retrospective timeline showing how this story has unfolded over the weeks. Please share!

February 2: A stormwater pipe bursts beneath an unlined coal ash impoundment at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant, spilling coal ash and contaminated wastewater directly into the Dan River.

February 3: Approximately 26 hours after the spill began Duke Energy finally notifies the public. NC Department of Natural Resources staff are on the scene helping to control the leak and begin taking water quality samples. Even at this early stage, with no water quality testing of the River or coal ash complete, officials downstream in Danville say the city’s drinking water will be safe.

February 4: Duke Energy and DENR staff continue to try to stop the spill. Duke estimates that approximately 50,000-82,000 tons of ash and 24-27 million gallons of contaminated wastewater reached the river.

February 5: Coal ash and wastewater continue pouring into the Dan River. The dark grey plume discolors the river as far as Danville, VA. The spill gains national attention and media across the country start raising questions about the lack of regulatory oversight of coal ash disposal.

February 6: Temporary fixes fail and Duke discovers that the broken pipe is actually corrugated metal not concrete as originally thought.  Samples taken by Waterkeeper Alliance show high levels of arsenic and other toxic heavy metals in the Dan, though DENR claims only copper exceeds state standards according to the agency’s tests.

February 7: Duke Energy apologizes for the spill and pledges to take care of the Dan River and surrounding environment.

February 8: Six days after the spill began, Duke Energy finally plugs the leaking pipe and stops the flow of waste to the river. NCDENR announces arsenic levels in the Dan River are unsafe, acknowledging original reports mistakenly showed the river was safe.

February 10: Duke Energy announces it plans to start removing ash out of the river immediately, but does not indicate how much ash will be removed from the river or plans for the remaining Dan River impoundments.

February 11: NC DENR asks a judge to disregard its proposed coal ash settlement with Duke. The settlement was criticized as a ‘sweetheart deal’ for not requiring Duke to clean up ongoing ash pollution and requiring only a $99,111 fine. DENR announces it will create a task force to review the state’s coal ash impoundments. NC lawmakers say they will push legislation for coal ash cleanup.

Secretary of NC DENR John Skvarla has been criticized for his agency's track record of coal ash and response to the Dan River spill. Photo Source: Charlotte Business Journal

February 12: Ten days after the spill began, state health officials warn the public to not eat fish from or come in physical contact with the Dan River. Duke Energy halves its estimationof how much waste was spilled into the Dan River, downgrading it to 30,000-39,000 tons of ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater. The combined totals of these numbers equal 140,000 tons of ash and contaminated waste water.

February 13: Things start getting really interesting when federal authorities launch a criminal investigation into the Dan River disaster, issuing subpoenas to both Duke Energy and DENR. Waterkeeper Alliance confirms a second impoundment leak is dumping coal ash contaminated water to the Dan River about a third of a mile upstream of the 48-inch stormwater pipe.

February 14: NCDENR discover another, 36-inch pipe leaking at the Dan River impoundments. Governor McCrory gets defensive at a winter storm news conference when asked questions about the Dan River spill.

February 15: Gov. McCrory faces more questions about his ties with Duke Energy, his employer for 28 years, and denies any link to the now defunct Duke/DENR coal ash settlement.

February 17: A four-hour NC Environmental Review Commission hearing is fraught with sharp exchanges, but doesn’t result in any clear direction on policy solutions.

February 18: DENR orders Duke to plug the second leaking pipe after test results show its discharge contains elevated arsenic levels. Coal ash now coats the bottom of the Dan River for 70 miles downstream. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issue a statement spotlighting the two endangered (logperch and spinymussels) and other sensitive species that inhabit the river who will be most impacted by this toxic waste disaster.

February 19: Federal investigators expand the criminal investigation to include all of NC’s coal ash impoundments and specific state employees. DENR holds their first press conference since the Dan River spill, Secretary John Skvarla and other officials closed the conference after 1 hour, leaving many of the press’ questions unanswered.

February 21: Duke Energy plugs the second leaking pipe, 7 days after it was discovered.

February 23: U.S. Forest service research biologist and coal ash expert Dennis Lemly estimates the damage caused by the Dan River disaster to fish, wildlife and local economies to be at least $70 million.

February 24: A new High Point University poll shows Gov. McCrory’s disapproval rating is up in the aftermath of the Dan River spill.

February 25: Governor McCrory finally says that old, leaky coal ash ponds like the ones at Dan River should be moved away from rivers and sends Duke a letter demanding utility hand over plans for all its NC coal ash dumps by March 15.

February 27: DENR chief Secretary John Skvarla continues to defend his agency’s handling of coal ash and environmentalists continue to call for swifter action to clean up the Dan River and other coal ash dumps.

March 1: A leaking stormwater pipe is discovered at another of Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments, this time at the Cliffside Steam Station (now renamed J.E. Rogers) in Rutherford County.

March 2: A new study shows that over a five year period Duke Energy earned over $9 billion in profits but received tax rebates totaling $299 million, raising more questions about Duke’s claim that cleaning up old coal ash dumps is too expensive.

March 3: DENR issues environmental violations for the Dan River spill, threatening fines of up to $25,000 a day for non-compliance.

March 5: Masses of dead mussels and clams are discovered downstream of the spill site, some of the first visible signs of the devastated river ecosystem.

March 6: A Wake County, NC judge orders Duke Energy to take immediate action to eliminate the sources of groundwater contamination (coal ash impoundments) at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.

On March 7, protesters gathered outside the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh demanding clean up of the Dan River and NC's other coal ash dumps. Photo source: WTVD

March 7: DENR cuts 13% of its staff positions in the Division of Water Resources and says it will not issue a violation for a third leaking pipe at Dan River, even though tests show the discharge contains high levels of coal ash toxins.

March 8: Duke Energy’s CEO, Lynn Good, said customers will cover the cost of emptying out the utility’s coal ash impoundments across North Carolina.

March 10: North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper says Duke Energy should shoulder the cost of cleaning up its ash and pledges to fight for consumers if the company tries to charge them. Gov. McCrory questions Duke’s management of coal ash and how it plans to pay for future clean ups, saying that  “Responsibility wasn’t taken care of somewhere within that organization”.

March 11: Records from the NC Utilities Commission are subpoenaed as part of the widening federal investigation.

March 12: A federal judge gives Duke Energy more time to respond to ongoing Clean Water Act litigation in light of two new filings. One of the new filings relates to the Dan River Steam Station.

March 13: Internal emails between Duke Energy and DENR staff show state regulators coordinated with Duke Energy before intervening in citizens’ lawsuits. Utility and state staff exchanged messaged discussing “how Duke wants to be sued.” Democrats in the NC legislature unveiled the framework of a bill to force Duke Energy to move all their coal ash to lined landfills away from waters and pay for clean up, not charge ratepayers.

March 14: DENR rejects Duke’s plans for cleaning up its coal ash statewide. Gov. McCrory demanded detailed plans by March 15, instead the utility sent a four-page letter called “inadequate” by DENR Secretary Skvarla.

This story is far from over. Keep up with the latest developments at our dedicated Dan River News page, bit.ly/DanRiverNews, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook where we post the latest in coal ash daily!

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