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Jan Lee headshot

Towns Impacted by Dan River Coal Ash Spill Continue to Struggle

Words by Jan Lee

As North Carolina regulators press to have Duke Energy stripped of protections that would have limited the company’s liability for cleanup of coal ash spills in two regional rivers, communities downstream are struggling to come to terms with the continuing impact of the cleanup and stigma from the pollution.

Danville, Va. is just miles downstream from where a pipe connected to a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy failed and spewed toxic sludge into the Dan River in February. The city of 43,000 has been working hard in recent years to revitalize its image and its future. A former tobacco and textiles town, its growth has depended on this waterway, which served at times not only as a resource for drinking water, but as a disposal site for nearby industrial waste and rinse water. It’s a history that Danville has gradually been moving away from.

These days, the Dan River fulfills another, more elegant purpose as one of Virginia’s state-designated Scenic Rivers. Approved last October, the designation encompasses a 15-mile stretch in the vicinity of Danville. The scenic recognition is expected to draw in much-needed tourism dollars from travelers interested in seeing Virginia’s rural beauty. Danville’s economic development, and its transition away from an industry that once painted the river currents in color, is now dependent upon that designation -- and the tourism that is meant to follow.

In February, staff from Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation told GoDanRiver.com that the river wasn’t currently in danger of losing its Scenic River status just because a spill had occurred. Turbidity was to be expected. But long-term pollution or the prevalence of factors that indicated pollution was another thing. A review has been put off until later this spring in order to gauge whether there has actually been damage to this coveted 15-mile stretch of river.

But local concern over the river’s status is only a reflection of a more insidious impact of this spill: Danville’s reputation as a place for new businesses to invest and thrive.

These days, business development is a make-or-break factor for small cities, especially cities that have an eye on tourism development as a way to transition away from industries that are no longer financially viable, or that pose environmental challenges. Danville’s historic legacy, its parks and scenic beauty rely not just on the vibrancy of the river, but also the investment of businesses that see its promotion and use as a sort of economic and sustainable partnership: The ecology of the river flourishes from protective, concerted investments of time and resources, and so do the businesses, the city and the residents that rely upon its health.

City officials have gone on record to assure residents that its water treatment plant, located in Danville, is able to filter out all of the toxins and sediment from the spill. City Manager Joe King appeared in a YouTube video designed to bolster confidence in the city’s water treatment. Gov. Terry McAuliffe even paid a visit to inspect the treatment plant and assured the 18,000 residents who depend on the plant for their drinking water that it was safe. Up until now, the reputation of Danville’s plant is as one of the top water treatment facilities in the state and one of the oldest in the country.

Still, the question on the minds of many right now doesn’t have to do with the efficient operation of the plant, or even the technology it employs, but the impact that pollution, which may take years to clean up, will have on the city’s ability to woo businesses from both within, and outside the area. And as other environmental spills have demonstrated in the past, that’s an answer that only the river knows.


Images courtesy of Aaron Headly

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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