NC’s Coal Ash Disaster: 6 Months Later

Guest Blog | July 31, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
Local kids play in the Dan River at Draper Landing, where sediment samples show toxic coal ash deposits lurking just below the water's surface. Photo source: Greensboro News & Record

Six months ago some of our worst fears became true (for a second time) when 140,000 tons of coal ash and contaminated wastewater spilled into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. As the spill continued for almost 2 weeks, a dark grey plume travelled 70 miles downstream threatening drinking water supplies and the river’s long-term health. Unlike other pollutants that can break down in the environment over time, heavy metal-laden ash settles to the river bed and the toxics can reenter the water column, get stirred up during flooding, and be taken up into the food chain as long as ash remains.

Duke Energy said they would take full responsibility and clean up the spill, with CEO Lynn Good stating in April 2014, “We are now continuing to work at cleaning up the river, and we will stay there until that is resolved.”

 So far, Duke Energy has removed 6% of its ash from the Dan as required by EPA. While short-term clean up efforts have ceased, the job of remediating this spill is far from over. 

Continued pressure is needed on EPA, Duke and the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) to ensure that every possible opportunity is taken to continue clean up efforts and protect Duke’s neighbors, the public, and the environment at all of NC’s coal ash dumpsites.

Even though the dark grey plume of coal ash is no longer visible, there's still boatloads of ash settled on the riverbed.

Instead of acting swiftly to vacuum ash during and immediately after the spill, EPA, Duke and NC DENR focused solely on stopping the leaky pipes. Their inability to focus on both sides of the problem resulted in ash spreading out in a thin layer over many miles and buried under sediment. Opportunities for more clean up will come when ash gets churned up and collects in deposits large enough to access (like the one removed at Schoolfield Dam), which EPA says Duke will be required to clean up. For now, however, the agency says the levels of toxics in the river are close to pre-spill levels, but folks on the ground disagree:

“It is inaccurate to claim the Dan River is the same as before the spill when there weren’t tens of thousands of tons of coal ash on the river bottom,” said Tiffany Haworth, Executive Director of the Dan River Basin Association.

“Although current surface water tests show that the river is safe for recreation, the fact remains that there is a substantial amount of coal ash paving the bottom for at least 20 miles past the spill site. If you dig just 6-8 inches down, you can see a layer of coal ash in parts of the Dan.”

DRBA will continue to monitor the sediment in hope that over time, the coal ash will move downstream and another large concentration of it will collect behind Schoolfield Dam again, making removal easier.

“Whether this will take 6 months, a year, 2 years – it is impossible to say,” said Tiffany. “But I can assure you that when that time comes, DRBA will act quickly and hold the EPA to their promise for another cleanup.”

In addition, the NC Department of Health and Human Services recently lifted the recreational water advisory on the Dan, stating “no incidental ingestion or skin contact risk exists for the sediment or the river water.” Questions remain about the validity of that statement, however, in light of the prevalence of coal ash in sediment close to recreation areas and lack of explanation from the State.

This August, Dan River Basin Association will hold a second event to share information and updates on the spill’s impacts, celebrate the river and raise funds for DRBA’s ongoing efforts to protect the Dan. Stay tuned to DRBA’s home page and Facebook page as details on this event are finalized and plan to attend!

NC Coal Ash in the Courts and Legislature

While Duke Energy, EPA and NC DENR close the book on the Dan River disaster, environmental and community organizations continue exposing serious threats from coal ash dumpsites in North Carolina and call for real solutions protecting communities and waterways. The NC Legislature is currently working on a bill attempting to regulate coal ash in the state. However, both versions of the bill to-date contain serious flaws and fails to ensure clean up of 10 dangerous and polluting sites around the state.

Many are calling on the legislature to require complete removal of coal ash from wet impoundments as the only way to prevent the next catastrophic spill and stop ground and surface water pollution at all of Duke Energy’s dumpsites. Falling far short of that mark, some provisions added by the Senate could actually roll back groundwater protections contained in current law. Once the bill passes, there will be a site-by-site public hearing process to determine proper closure.

In addition, SACE and our allies intervened in the State’s enforcement action calling on Duke to clean up the failed ash impoundments on the Dan River and move ash to safer, dry, lined storage away from waterways. This is just one of multiple lawsuits seeking to overhaul Duke’s tradition of mismanaging this dangerous waste that has endangered North Carolina’s ground and surface waters for years.

Preventing the Next Disaster

Coal ash retrieved from the Dan River on July 17, 2014. This is what Duke Energy calls adequate clean up of their coal ash mess. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

This solemn milestone is a reminder of the hundreds of coal ash dumps scattered throughout the Southeast that also pose serious threats to nearby communities. Until definitive action is taken to remove toxic ash from aging, unlined, leaking pits near our waterways, it’s just a matter of time until the next spill happens, or the next discovery of silent, ongoing pollution. It’s not enough to react to devastating coal ash spills once they happen because it’s virtually impossible to return a waterway to how it was before a coal ash spill.

Time will tell if North Carolina is truly on track to require safer coal ash sites, but a federal coal ash rule is needed to ensure consistent, comprehensive protections for all communities. The EPA will announce the first-ever federal coal ash regulations, though several options are still on the table–some offering very little change from the status quo. While the official comment period has ended, EPA still needs to hear from citizens demanding a strong, enforceable minimum standard to protect all communities living with and downstream of coal ash.

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