PLANT

NC river fouled by toxic coal ash spill from Duke Energy pond

Regulators waiting on test results to determine if there’s a hazard to people or wildlife.


ON THE DAN RIVER, NC — On the bank of the Dan River, hundreds of workers at a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre pond where the toxic ash was stored.

Since the leak was first discovered Feb. 2, Duke estimates up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water has spilled into the river. Officials at the nation’s largest electricity provider say they can’t provide a timetable for when the leak will be fully contained, though the flow has lessened significantly as the pond has emptied.

Environmental regulators in North Carolina say they are still awaiting test results to determine if there is any hazard to people or wildlife. Coal ash is known to contain a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium.

Brian Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.

“How do you clean this up?” he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his canoe paddle. “Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? It’s going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds, to people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.”

Twenty miles downstream from the spill site and across the state line in Danville, Va., municipal officials in Danville there say they are successfully filtering out contaminates in the drinking water for the city of about 43,000 people.

Meanwhile, officials in Virginia Beach, Va., announced they had stopped drawing water from Lake Gaston, a major reservoir fed by the Dan.

Environmentalists and government regulators have been warning for years that the 31 ash ponds at Duke’s power plants in North Carolina had the potential for calamity, especially after a similar pond in Kingston, Tenn., burst open in 2008.

“Even without a spill, these settling ponds have been releasing continuous contamination into the rivers downstream from coal-fired power plants,” said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry at Duke University, which was named for the same family that founded the power company.

Duke Energy officials have always insisted the ponds at its facilities were well engineered and safe. At the Dan River plant, the waste pond was expanded more than 40 years ago over an older storm water drainage pipe.

Though the coal-fired turbines at the Dan River facility were shut down in 2012 and replaced with an adjacent gas-burning plant, the company currently has no firm plans for when and how to clean up the remaining ash ponds.