Nearly six months after a pipe at a defunct Duke Energy coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, leaked at least 30,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, environmentalists say Duke is walking away from its responsibility to clean up the waterway.
Earlier this month, the company announced that it had finished cleaning out the river, saying workers had removed 2,500 tons of coal ash — the toxic byproduct from coal-burning that contains heavy metals and arsenic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been overseeing the cleanup, approved Duke’s determination that the river was indeed clean.
But, even as North Carolina authorities said that the river is safe to swim in, North Carolina’s environmentalists have warned that the remaining coal ash still poses a threat.
“You don’t have to be an environmental scientist to realize that taking out less than 6 percent of the coal ash means you don’t have a clean river,” said Tiffany Haworth, director of the Dan River Basin Association. “We know the coal ash remains at the bottom of the river. So it depends on how you define ‘clean.’”
Federal and state authorities don't dispute that there are still tons of coal ash left in the Dan River, but ideas differ over what to do about it.
The contamination of the river started when a pipe beneath a 27-acre pond of coal ash at the Eden plant failed on Feb. 6. The leaking lasted for weeks, as Duke’s engineers and workers struggled to plug the pipe. North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) — long accused by environmentalists of being too influenced by big energy corporations — agreed to let the EPA take the lead on the cleanup. DENR is now under criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for those allegedly close ties.
Both the EPA and the state promised to hold Duke accountable for the spill, but environmentalists say all parties involved have dropped the ball. The EPA approved Duke’s claim that the river had been fully cleaned this month, and DENR spokesperson Drew Elliot said the agency was relying on the EPA because it “has more experience.”
Despite environmentalists’ worries, it's unclear whether Duke can do anything more at this point. The coal ash has been carried as far as 70 miles downstream from Eden and sits under sediment several inches thick. That, some say, makes it nearly impossible to remove, something that even Haworth of the Dan River Basin Association acknowledges.
“You can’t vacuum a whole river,” Haworth said. “The layer of ash is too thin, and trying to clean it would create more ecological damage than it’s worth.”
But Haworth and others say the remaining ash is an environmental problem-in-waiting. Once there’s a heavy rain, the sediment keeping the ash on and beneath the riverbed will likely shift, and the ash will reintegrate with the water, once again posing a threat to people who swim in it and the creatures who live in it.
Others, like Amy Adams of local activist group Appalachian Voices, point out that much larger coal ash spills — like one in 2008 that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into and around a river in Harriman, Tennessee — have a much higher remediation rate than the Dan River spill.
A spokesperson for Duke said if coal ash does indeed reintegrate into the water or accumulate at levels that the EPA deems unsafe, it will restart its cleanup process.
“If the changes do occur and the coal ash warrants removal based on EPA standards, then we will take action,” said Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for the company.
But Adams said that even if Duke tried to get everything out of the Dan River, some coal ash would likely still remain. She said the state needs to start thinking long-term about the negative effects of coal ash ponds. Duke has 14 ponds across the state, and unlike some states, including South Carolina, North Carolina doesn’t require coal ash to be stored in lined pits or kept away from major bodies of water.
Without instituting more stringent standards, Adams says another Dan River-like spill is likely to happen again.
“It’s not something that’s biodegradable,” she said. “It’s going to be in that river forever. There will always be the threat that the coal ash will be brought up again, and again, and again.”