Toxic coal ash poured into the Dan River 10 years ago. The spill left a legacy of legislation and change
On a recent, sunny morning, Brian Williams stood on the banks of the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina. Water flowed down the river quickly and calmly.
Ten years ago, scenes along this same spot were anything but calm.
For decades, Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station burned coal to produce power. The toxic coal ash created as a byproduct of that process was put into a small, man-made body of water called an ash basin.
On February 2, 2014, a stormwater pipe underneath the ash basin broke, sending 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water into the Dan River.
As a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, Williams watched as coal ash poured into the river.
“There was gray coal ash splattered all on the trees and all on the river,” said Williams, gesturing with his hands. “This was nothing but a gray, black river. It was beyond belief how much [coal ash] there was.”
The sludge released into the river contained several hazardous metals, including arsenic, lead, and mercury. It went as far as 70 miles downstream.
Tiffany Hayworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, also witnessed the immediate impacts of the spill, which became the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.
“We were seeing turtles coming out of the river. We were seeing mussels die by the thousands,” Hayworth said. “We knew that an entire layer of macro invertebrates that keep that river clean… instantly died when that coal ash hit them.”
Environmental advocates warn of disaster
However, years before this spill happened, environmental advocates were already warning Duke Energy and state regulators about the risks of unlined coal ash basins, such as the one at the Dan River Steam Station.
Frank Holloman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, explained that unlined coal ash basins are dangerous not only because of their potential to spill, but also because the coal ash seeps through soil and dirt and pollutes surrounding groundwater and surface water.
“Before we got meaningful action, it amounted to tens of millions of gallons of groundwater contamination,” Holloman said.
Holloman points to another coal ash spill - the largest in U.S. history - that happened in 2008, about an hour outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The Kingston Fossil Plant run by the Tennessee Valley Authority released one billion gallons of coal ash slurry, destroying homes, wildlife habitat, and ultimately killing dozens of people who cleaned up the radioactive waste.
Holloman says that disaster, which happened six years before the Dan River spill, was treated as a one-time event.
Advocates in North Carolina refused to let the Dan River spill be treated the same way.
“The major reason why the Dan River spill ended up being such a critical event and helped to change coal ash policy in North Carolina and the country was because we had already been making the case and enforcing the Clean Water laws against coal ash pollution throughout the year plus leading up to the spill,” Holloman said. “It wasn't treated as a one-off disaster, but rather as validation of what the conservation groups had been saying for over a year.”
Federal and state action taken to address coal ash and hold Duke Energy accountable
In September 2014, seven months after the Dan River spill, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which prohibited the creation of any new coal ash basins. At the time, this law was the first of its kind in the nation.
Three months later, the Environmental Protection Agency released its first iteration of federal coal ash regulations.
Over the next several years, Duke Energy paid millions of dollars in fines to federal and state agencies, including a fine of $6 million to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Most notably, in May 2015, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine federal criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, four of which were tied directly to the Dan River spill. According to a press release at the time, the company also paid a $68 million criminal fine and agreed to spend $34 million “on environmental projects and land conservation to benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia.” Duke Energy says it has since completed those environmental projects, which included building boat launches, investing in local parks and removing a dam to help fish move freely across the Dan River.
In July 2015, a non-legal consequence of the spill also formed: a grassroots, advocacy organization called Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash. The group rallied communities from across the state. At the time, Amy Adams helped organize this group through her work with Appalachian Voices, another conservation group based in Boone.
“I’m just so proud to have been a part of it. To see what true people power looks like, what organizing and camaraderie looks like, what solidarity looks like,” said Adams, who now works for the Southeast Climate & Energy Network. “We banded together and refused to be quiet. Yes, it took a really long time. But we got the cleanup that we were seeking.”
Ongoing coal ash excavation at Duke Energy sites
In part because of state regulations and legal settlements, including a landmark 2020 agreement, Duke Energy is in the process of closing all of its coal plants and moving all of its coal ash from basins into lined landfills.
Speaking at Duke’s Roxboro site in Person County about an hour north of Durham, spokesperson Bill Norton says the company has excavated 44 million tons of coal ash across the state, with 81 million tons left to go. The utility expects to finish excavating all of its coal ash basins by 2038.
Norton describes protective measures the company is taking in landfills to prevent leaks and keep the coal ash intact.
“There is one impervious layer, a leak detection system, another impervious layer, and, if somehow groundwater were to get through that, we have groundwater monitoring wells that would detect leaks too, which would allow us to make repairs,” Norton said while standing on top of a coal ash landfill.
The strength of these lined landfills should be enough to prevent another spill like the one ten years ago, according to Norton.
“The spill was an accident. It should not have happened. We took immediate action and immediate ownership of the issue,” Norton said. “It's important to emphasize that the river's ecology is absolutely thriving today. There were no impacts beyond a couple days in terms of the overall river’s health.”
For Brian Williams of the Dan River Basin Association, questions still linger about the long-term impacts of the spill on the river. Only about 10% of the coal ash was ever excavated from the river. According to Williams, there’s not enough information to ever definitively know what happened to the remaining 90%.
“You just can't imagine concentrated heavy metals being in the environment and not being a problem at some point,” Williams said. “So that's still a concern of ours.”
When asked about getting justice by having Duke Energy clean up its coal ash basins, Williams thought carefully for a moment.
“Well, it’s never enough. But there’s only so much you can do, and you can’t reverse time,” he said. “So I don't see it as justice served. I see it as lessons learned. And I think as we move down the road, we won't make those same mistakes again.”