From the Ashes

By Jesse Campbell (

Article Published: Feb. 27 | Modified: Feb. 27
From the Ashes

Amy Adams, N.C. campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered in coal ash from the Dan River.
Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices

Was the Duke Energy coal ash spill that spread a 70-mile long plume of debris and toxic heavy metals into the Dan River earlier this month preventable?

According to Appalachian Voices, a locally based regional environmental protection advocacy organization, the answer is a resounding ‘’yes.”

According to the Committee on Mine Placement of Coal Combustion Wastes, coal ash is one of the references used in the energy industry (in this example, Duke Energy) to describe the byproduct that is created from the burning of coal.

Fly ash is generally captured by particle filtration equipment before the gases reach the chimneys of coal-fired power plants, like Duke’s. And together with bottom ash, which is removed from the bottom of the furnace, it is jointly known as coal ash, according to the CMPCCW.

How It Happened

On Feb. 2, Duke Energy discovered that a 48-inch storm water pipe running directly under an Eden coal ash pond had failed, resulting in some 30,000 to 39,000 tons of coal ash being spilled into the Dan River.

“When the pipe failed, that mixture of coal ash was able to shoot out into the river,” said Amy Adams, a North Carolina campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

Compounding the pipe’s ambiguous oversight was that segments of the pipe had been replaced with corrugated metal instead of reinforced concrete. Where pieces of the replacement pipe met the concrete is where the failure occurred, Adams said.

A report released Tuesday by North Carolina Fish and Wildlife indicates that the 70-mile plume from the site of the discharge spot is, in some places, five feet deep.

The reasons why the spill was preventable are multifold, Adams said.

“This was 100-percent preventable,” she said. “If the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) had put out federal regulations after the 2008 spill (near Kinston), we wouldn’t be here today. If the state had acted like leaders in removing coal ash ponds (from the state), this would’ve been preventable.”

She also placed some of the blame on the energy provider responsible for the pipe, Duke Energy.

“If Duke could safely manage (its) coal ash, as they say they can, and knew more about their site and were on top of inspections, they would’ve noticed the issue with the pipe before causing this massive rupture,” Adams said. “This was absolutely preventable.”

A Local Response

Appalachian Voices’ response to the disaster was immediate.

“Our immediate response was sending two staff people the night it happened (to the site),” field coordinator Kara Dodson said. “We took water samples, looking for heavy metals and other toxins found in the coal ash, and, in the following days, took more samples from the river.”

The results were what they feared.

“We did find high amounts of high metals compared to natural stream metals, and we know these metals are linked to coal ash,” Dodson said. “We have been assessing the state’s and Duke’s (water regulations), and we are calling for more stringent regulations in making sure water sources below spills are not compromised.”

In response to inquiries, Duke Energy released a statement, saying it is designing a long-term assessment and remediation plan in close coordination with federal and state environmental agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“We’re committed to the Dan River and the communities that it serves,” said Charlie Gates, senior vice president of the company’s power generation operations, in a Feb. 8 prepared statement. “We are accountable for what has happened and have plenty of work ahead of us. Our next step is to continue to monitor the water quality of the river and to accelerate our planning for the best long-term solution at the site.”

The spill also brought attention to a 36-inch storm water pipe further downstream that also shows signs of leakage. In a news release issued last week, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported that it had ordered Duke Energy to immediately halt discharges of material from the pipe in question.

According to the release, DENR issued the order after initial testing revealed elevated levels of arsenic — one of the key indicators of the presence of coal ash.

DENR reported Feb. 21 that Duke Energy was working to fill both the 36- and 48-inch pipes with concrete and grout.

Meanwhile, Appalachian Voices is hopeful that North Carolina will make strides similar to South Carolina in addressing the environmental hazards of coal ash ponds.

The Palmetto State is working to ensure energy companies agree to remove all coal ash ponds in the state and instead use the byproduct of the steam and turbine plants to line cells at landfills or as filler for concrete plant products.

Long-term effects of the coal ash spill are yet to be seen.

Moving Forward

DENR staff members are currently collecting fish in the Dan River near the site of the coal ash spill to begin fish tissue testing to see what impact the spill could have on fish and if they are safe for human consumption.

Fish tissues collected this week will serve as baseline data to compare against fish tissue samples collected later in the year. Scientific research shows that it typically takes more than a few weeks for pollutants to accumulate in fish tissue. After these initial samples are taken, staff members plan to return in about one month, then six months and then a year from now to take additional fish tissue samples for comparison.

“Sampling fish tissues is part of our ongoing effort to better understand the impacts of the coal ash spill on the health of the Dan River and all the organisms dependent on it,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, in a news release. “The information will help us determine the extent of damage the spill has had on aquatic life and the river and better inform cleanup efforts.”

State environmental regulators are currently planning to modify a permit that could require Duke Energy to move coal ash from the basins at the Dan River power plant to a lined landfill, according to a DENR press release.

DENR plans to consider changes to a permit that currently allows Duke Energy to discharge specified amounts of wastewater into the Dan River from a pipe downstream of the 48-inch storm water pipe that ruptured and resulted in the coal ash spill, the department reported this week.

“We are taking swift and appropriate action to address a catastrophic failure at the Dan River power plant,” Reeder said. “Now that the two unpermitted discharges have been stopped, and the assessment and cleanup has started, our focus has turned to what steps we can take to protect the Dan River. Based on our investigation of this spill, one option under consideration right now is to eliminate all coal ash waste discharges coming from this facility and require that Duke Energy move the coal ash waste stored onsite to a lined landfill away from any waterways.”

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