After The Spill: Coal Ash & The Dan River

Nov 17, 2014

Nine months after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River from a decommissioned power plant in North Carolina the ultimate environmental, economic and legal consequences remain unknown.

The community most immediately and most visibly affected by the spill was Danville in Southside Virginia where residents were shocked to see the river's surface covered with a sickly gray film the morning after the release.

Duke Energy – owner of the power plant – has been able to retrieve 3,000 tons of ash from the Dan and says the rest will dissipate.

It's windy and cold – too cold for mid Autumn – alongside one of several dams built on the river to serve the textile mills that once helped make Danville Virginia's wealthiest city. The mills, along with the tobacco industry and much of that wealth are gone now. The one thing Danville has always been able to count on is the river that gave it its name. And now there's reason to worry about that.

“36,000 of coal ash remain in the river, that did not disappear.”

Frank Holleman is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He was in Danville for a panel discussion about the effects of the spill. The Dan River is no longer gray – it hasn't been for a long time now. The coal ash is out of sight on the bottom. But Holleman talks about a recent study that led researchers to believe it won't stay there.

“Coal ash sinks to the bottom so it's not normally in the water column. But during hot weather when the biological and heat conditions are right there can occur what they call eruptions of things like arsenic into the water column.”

Summer brings not only heat conditions to Danville but often drought conditions as well. Barry Dunkley is in charge water treatment for the city.

“During the drought situation, that's a good point, the flow gets real low.”

And brings coal ash closer to the surface.

“We don't know what going to happen so to speak so we just have to wait and see as we go through the summer next summer and learn some more when we go through that dry period plus not only drought but temperature's up too so that's what we’ve got to look for.”

Dunkley stresses his confidence that coal ash can be filtered out of drinking water and residents need not worry about what comes out of the tap.

One thing Brian Williams with the Dan River Basin Association is very worried about is the perception of the Dan River, especially among potential visitors.

“And if you just Google Dan River you'll see coal ash. That's a very obvious way to see what kind of an impact this has had.”

If tourists stay away the growing businesses that run river excursions will be in trouble.

“People who know Eden, North Carolina and they know Danville and they know the Dan River associate it with the coal ash spill. That's something we have to overcome.”

That's one part of the economic issue. Another is here on the banks of the river in the center of Danville where rows of once empty warehouses are being transformed into commercial and residential spaces. Danville resident Hollis Stauber says the river is critical to this reawakening. 

“The River District is coming alive in downtown Danville. The economic side of downtown is starting to look back towards the river. The new Y is a huge new facility that's right on the river facing the river. So all this is the reason that we want our river to shine.”

And if it doesn't shine, attorney Frank Holleman says the $10-million Duke Energy has promised to communities along the river is woefully inadequate and he reminds us about the legal variable in the equation.

“And that's going to be part of the issue when it gets added up, what Duke should compensate for and the public should insist that Duke pay the full cost of the harm it's done to the river that will be there for decades to come. “

Among those suing Duke over the spill are environmentalists, the state of North Carolina and some of the company's own shareholders. No trial dates have been set.