Dan River spill spurs major ash clean up orders

Tom Reeder, Director of DENR's Division of Water Quality summed up the Dan River disaster's impacts to wildlife at a February 17 Environmental Review Committee hearing: “If you’re a mollusk and covered with ash, then yeah, you’re gonna die". Photo source: Morris Lawson

Over a month has passed since a broken stormwater pipe under coal ash lagoons at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River power station began spewing 140,000 tons of toxic waste into the Dan River*. The nation’s 3rd largest coal ash disaster has been fraught with scandal and news about the intimate relationship between Duke Energy and NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) appears nearly every day. We have collected almost 200 unique articles and other media hits (and counting) on our dedicated Dan River news page. Coming on the heels of the West Virginia water crisis, it seems the public is more aware than ever of how high risk energy choices threaten the public’s waters. This is the ash spill that keeps on giving new developments that promise a safer, cleaner future for North Carolina’s communities and waters; like yesterday’s court ruling requiring Duke take immediate action to eliminate the sources of groundwater contamination at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina.

All this attention on coal ash and latest ruling has only driven Duke Energy to make vague promises regarding future clean up of the Dan River spill and their other coal ash sites; we have yet to see any definitive plans to remove ash from the river or out of the failed Dan River impoundments. Following the unprecedented scrutiny, NC DENR and Governor McCrory issued violations against Duke Energy for their coal ash impoundment problems following years of lax regulatory oversight and friendly settlements of litigation brought by citizen groups.

In the meantime, while the humans argue, the river’s ecosystems and wildlife are suffering from the 70-mile long bar of ash coating the river bottom and those who live, work and play on the river are left to wonder about the long-term consequences.

Before coal ash fouled the Dan River it was a destination for boaters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts who came for the gentle waters, robust game fishery and bald eagles, otters, and osprey living in and near the Dan. Several federally listed endangered species also call the river home, and all will undoubtedly be seriously impacted by the coal ash now choking out the backbone of the river’s food chain: the bugs and vital habitat at the river’s bottom. Many, like Brian Williams, Programs Manager with the Dan River Basin Association, believe there is no quick fix that would return the river to what it was before the spill, as he puts it:

“How do you clean this up? Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can’t clean this up. It’s going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.”

Locals are already seeing the spill's impacts to wildlife, such as turtles coming out of hibernation burrows and dying. Others say ducks and other waterfowl have completely left the river. Photo Source: Morris Lawson

Wildlife and coal ash expert Dennis Lemly, PhD estimates the impacts of this disaster could exceed $70 million. His analysis accounts for lost wildlife, tourism revenue, depreciated property values and other impacts to the river and nearby communities.

Morris Lawson has lived near the Dan River his whole life and fishes the river an average of four days a week. Now, he is worried that his family’s way of life could be over. “I want my 10 year old son to be able to fish this river, the Dan River is one of the few in the area where striped bass run on,” he said in an interview with SACE staff. “That will be over now if the fish can’t hatch.”

The Dan River is not the only thing in need of a serious clean up. Duke and DENR are now the subjects of a widened federal  investigation triggered by the spill. Federal prosecutors have ordered nearly 20 DENR employees to testify before a grand jury, demanded records related to any investments or gifts they received from Duke Energy. Media coverage continue to question DENR’s ongoing lack of action to stop illegal pollution at all of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumpsites across North Carolina.

Earlier this week, reports came out saying that DENR supervisors repeatedly blocked staff’s attempts to enforce the law and stop Duke’s ongoing pollution. Despite the agency and governor’s rhetoric, both have enabled this pollution for years and are still failing to commit to definitive actions preventing another coal ash spill. Actions of our public officials are too little too late: On February 25, Gov. McCrory sent a letter to Duke Energy requesting the utility supply options, costs and other details about its ash ponds to the State by March 15, stating that moving ash is his primary (though not only) goal. And after years of allowing Duke’s illegal pollution, DENR has finally issued citations for Duke’s illegal coal ash pollution at five sites, which could eventually lead to fines of up to $25,000 a day.

On February 28 a broken stormwater pipe at Duke Energy's Cliffside Plant was found leaking up to 1,100 gallons of wastewater a day. According to DENR, a temporary fix is preventing water from reaching the Broad River.

It is good that DENR is finally doing their job and issuing notices of violations for these most basic Clean Water Act violations and Gov. McCrory is calling for Duke to plan for its ash. However, these actions alone will not clean up pollution or protect communities. The best solution is to remove all ash in old, unlined pits to safe, dry, lined storage away from waterways. Duke and DENR have yet to take that vital step. This story is far from over, so please check in to our Dan River news page for the latest developments and visit our take action page now to demand real coal ash solutions at the local, state and federal level.

*Most news stories are reporting 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River. We use 140,000 tons, which is a combination of the reported ash waste and waste water (24 million gallons), because the waste water is also carrying toxic heavy metals from the coal ash impoundment. We suspect the numbers were separated originally by Duke Energy to provide the illusion that the spill was smaller than it actually was.

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