Monday, February 10, 2014

Coal Ash Spill into the Dan River, North Carolina

From the Waterkeeper Alliance (Photo by Rick Dove)
Approximately 82,000 tons of coal ash poured into the Dan River from a storm water pipe that burst on Superbowl Sunday (2/2/14). The 48-inch stormwater drainage pipe was located underneath the ash pond and when it burst, an estimated 27 million gallons of water leaked into the ash pond and created a stream of coal ash slurry that flowed into the river, turning the water into a dark, sludgy mess. “More than two miles downstream, the river had turned solid gray, and there was a thick coating—at least six inches—of ash on the river bottom,” Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins observed. “You could see at the spill site and just from sediment deposited on the banks that the river should be brown.” As it stands, this ranks as the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Coal ash is a waste product left over from burning coal, similar in concept to the ash left in your barbeque after you use charcoal. The difference is that heavy metals, like lead and arsenic, tend to get concentrated in the ash making it highly toxic.

Duke Energy had stopped generating electricity at the plant in 2012, but the ash was left behind in an impoundment at the site. A 2009 EPA report indicated that field inspectors found the dams leaking, with unstable surfaces, and labeled all of Duke Energy's North Carolina 53-year old ash impoundments as "significant hazard potential structures."  However, despite the warnings, no changes were made because the EPA has no enforceable regulations in place for coal ash disposal or containment.

It took Duke Energy six days to plug the leak. 
The spill occurred near Eden, North Carolina. Downstream the Dan River supplies drinking water to communities in North Carolina and Virginia. So far official say that tap water is safe to drink, but environmental groups are unsure and have been requesting additional information. There is also great concern over the potential long-term environmental consequences to the area, which is known as a wilderness recreation zone.

Adapted from
The analyses released by Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance suggest that the water in the river downstream of the spill is highly contaminated. They report that the water has high levels of a variety of heavy metals including arsenic, chromium, iron, lead, and manganese. At this point it is unclear how long cleanup will take and what the long term effects might be to the regional ecosystem. The solids from the spill have settled on the river bottom and coated the banks.

Volunteers with the Dan River Basin Association, graduate students from Duke University
and staff with the environmental group Appalachian Voices collect water samples on
the Dan River after a massive coal ash spill. Source: Eric Chance/Appalachian Voices

Also disturbing, according to EcoWatch and the Waterkeeper Alliance, authorities waited until Monday evening, more than 24 hours after being alerted to the spill, to notify the public. The spill lasted for six days but the numbers released (82,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of water) have apparently not changed since that announcement.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this information making it easy to see where the spill occurred and the flow direction of the river. Duke Energy is buying radio advertisements that feature a lineman with the company saying that he knows the company will "do the right thing" regarding the coal ash situation. Lovely. Above you point out the lack of regulations on this danger to the public and the environment.


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