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Jan Lee headshot

Dan River Coal Ash Problems Not Over, Experts Say

Words by Jan Lee

More than three months after regulators were told that a coal ash containment pond in North Carolina had failed and was dumping toxic sludge into the nearby Dan River, environmental experts are taking a hard look at what’s left in the water. What they have found may not bode well for the long-range health of the area’s ecosystem.

Duke Energy, the utility company that owns the pond system that failed, has been vacuuming up large deposits of coal ash that has settled in and on along the sides of the river. But experts say that they aren’t finding as many deposits as they would have hoped, which means one of two things: The heavy metals and other toxins have either been washed down stream, or they are now becoming covered over by riverbed silt.

Coal ash impacts on the Dan River ecosystem

Both possibilities can pose problems for marine life, said Dennis Lemly, a U.S. Forest Service scientist who also teaches biology at Wake Forest University. Migrating coal ash means more exposure of marine life to toxic metals – including North Carolina’s prime fishing stocks, he explained in an interview with the North Carolina News & Record.

In this case, the destination is a body of water called the Kerr Reservoir, some 70 miles downstream, which is populated with walleye, catfish, crappy and three types of bass. Many spawn along the river or in the reservoir, and are prime attraction for sports fishing enthusiasts.

“Once ash reaches Kerr Reservoir in significant amounts, which it will, exposure and toxicity to fish and wildlife in this ash deposition zone could be highly significant,” Lemly told the News & Record. And the fact that the coal ash tends to also settle in hard-to-find clumps along the eddies of the river is also a concern, since those are the spots that fish may spawn.

Several studies conducted over the years have shown that metals like mercury, arsenic and copper not only cause deformities in exposed fish but also interfere with the species' homing ability during spawning.

Those coal ash deposits that aren’t washed downstream still pose a long-term risk to the river’s health. High winds and storms can stir up the silt and dredge up deposits that had “disappeared” into the silt. This action not only re-exposes marine life to toxins, but also makes cleanup even harder, and more sustained.

The Dan River cleanup

Local environmental groups have been critical of Duke Energy’s timeline for cleanup and have been urging the state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) to speed the process up. On March 20, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed motions on behalf of four environmental groups requesting that they be allowed to participate in the state enforcement action of the cleanup.  To get a better sense of the problem, I spoke with Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for SELC.

“We have seen that we cannot count on DENR to effectively enforce the law and require cleanups of these sites,” Holleman said in a recent telephone interview. “In fact, DENR has been an obstruction to our efforts … to clean up Duke’s coal ash pollution. So we thought it was important that local conservation groups and river groups … be involved and at the table have a voice before the court to press Duke to effectively clean up the dangerous Dan River site.”

SELC filed the motions on behalf of the Dan River Basin Association, Roanoke River Basin Association, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Waterkeeper Alliance. Holleman said the court approved the intervention this week.

North Carolina’s environmental quagmire

But progress in seeing a quick and expedient cleanup has been fraught with challenges. In March, Superior Judge Paul Ridgeway ordered the company to clean up the spill immediately, ruling that state regulators and the company had been misinterpreting the law for several years.

That led a bizarre move on the part of the state’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC), which interprets and oversees environmental regulations in the state, to take sides with Duke Energy.  The EMC asked the judge not to give it, and regulators at the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, the power to force Duke to clean up the pollution.

I asked Holleman why the regulators would appeal a decision that would lead to an earlier resolve of environmental problems. He said the first red flag was not that the state was appealing the issue, but rather the lack of transparency as to their reasons.

“It is a very odd position for the state to be in, because the state, by appeal, is objecting to the ruling of the court that the state has authority to require Duke to immediately clean up its pollution of the state’s waters. You would think the state would enthusiastically embrace that authority.”

In fact, transparency may be at the heart of the state’s concerns. Its appeal was discussed with the court under executive session, where the press would be unable to hear the reasons for its action. But Holleman pointed out in an interview with the North Carolina-based News & Observer that public scrutiny and outcry has in the past been successful in propelling the state to take action against Duke.

“If there's anything we have seen here it’s that enforcement action has only been taken when the public has known what is going on,” Holleman noted.

Three months after 39,000 tons of coal ash flooded into the Dan River, cleanup crews are still trying to remove the pollution that lined the river with gray sludge. For its part, Duke Energy’s Chief Executive Officer Lynn Good said during a shareholder’s meeting that the company is working both to clean up the sludge and to find long-term solutions for its 14 different containment ponds around the state.

Duke Energy declined to be interviewed, but provided a fact sheet with a map of the company's 14 coal plant sites and an estimation of the time that will be needed to close or improve the sites. The improvements won't be cheap: Duke estimates the cost to be around $10 billion.

But environmental groups that feel that Duke Energy’s CEO has been evading opportunities to sit down and really discuss the river’s worrisome ecology, may soon have their chance. During the company's annual shareholders’ meeting last month, Water Keeper Alliance representative Donna Lisenby invited Good to “see the problem from our perspective,” meaning up close and personal from the side of a river boat.

Good has agreed to join them. There will likely be little room in the canoe for disagreements as the two groups take a float through some of North Carolina’s most beloved and still contaminated waters.

Coal ash: "No further warnings warranted"

As to the conditions of the John H. Kerr Reservoir, which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border, DENR does not appear to be overly concerned about further pollution. In a fact sheet the agency published on the Dan River coal ash spill, it noted that there’s no need for further health advisories on the lake, since the reservoir’s fish stock is already off the menu list for local tourists who fish at the lake – or should be.

“Due to historical activities not associated with the coal ash release, [Virginia Department of Health] has an existing fish consumption advisory for the Kerr Reservoir and it includes the Dan River … Certain species of fish in these waters contain elevated levels of methyl mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Results of the analysis of fish tissue samples collected from the Dan River after the coal ash release do not warrant additional fish consumption advisories.”

That will no doubt be a relief to this year's summer visitors.

Images: Dan River pollution testing: USFWS Southeast Region

John H. Kerr Reservoir: vastateparkstaff

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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