Breaking Down the Dan River Coal Ash Spill

Tens of thousands of tons of potentially hazardous waste are sloshing into a water source. Where's the alarm?
Duke Energy
The Dan River ash basin on Monday.

Let’s break down this coal ash spill up in Eden:

1. Coal ash is the residue left behind when coal is burned for power. It contains mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, and other metals.

2. The coal industry produces about 110 million tons of it per year. More than half of it is stored in ponds or landfills.

3. Coal ash is unregulated. Four years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever rules to regulate it. Energy companies objected, saying the regulations would increase their costs. The Obama Administration has not acted on the EPA proposal.

4. On Sunday, a pipe beneath a retired Duke Energy plant’s coal ash pond in Eden ruptured, releasing up to 82,000 tons of ash and as much as 27 million gallons of polluted water into the Dan River, which supplies drinking water to the city of Danville, Va., population 43,000.

5. It’s estimated to be the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

6. Duke Energy did not notify the public for 24 hours. It did not have to.

7. Duke was so ignorant of its own operation that it didn’t know what kind of pipe had ruptured.

8. Duke owns 17 coal ash ponds, 13 active, throughout North Carolina. (See this Observer graphic.)

9. Included in that number are two Gaston County lagoons that hold far more coal ash-contaminated water than the Dan River pond. They sit next to Mountain Island Lake, which supplies drinking water to the Charlotte area.

10. There’s significant evidence that coal ash causes long-term health risks to people, such as cancer and neurological damage, and kills wildlife.

11. As far as authorities in Danville know, the city’s filtration and treatment system has removed the ash from the water supply, and the water is safe to drink.

12. Danville authorities are relying at least in part on testing data from Duke Energy, which didn’t know what kind of pipe had broken.

13. This is what coal ash looks like (courtesy of the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance):

14. I really would not want that stuff in the river from which the town where I live gets its water.

15. Five days in, Duke is still trying to stop the leak.

The Waterkeeper Alliance has more information, including a map showing the Dan’s drainage basin.

Yesterday, I spoke to Rhiannon Fionn, a Charlotte-based journalist who’s been working for years on a multimedia project showing the effects of coal ash; her work to date, with frequent updates since the spill, is on her website, Coal Ash Chronicles. She drove to Eden on Tuesday and saw Duke-hired contract workers collecting bucketfuls of polluted water to test.

No one is “blaming” Duke, exactly. “Actually, to Duke’s credit,” Rhiannon told me, “they’re supposed to inspect the ponds every week, and they have a guy drive by to check every day, like a security guy driving the property … and he was the one who noticed the problem in the first place.”

It’s just a massive regulatory vacuum regarding gray sludge that contains hazardous materials that at any time could slosh by the tens of thousands of tons and millions of gallons into the waterways people drink from. Why are people not more outraged, or at least alarmed, about this?

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