Coal Ash Piles Up As High As 5 Feet In North Carolina River, Endangering Aquatic Life

CREDIT: AP Photo / Gerry Broome

The pipe break that spilled up to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash into a North Carolina river has affected parts of the river as far as 70 miles away from the spill’s source, federal officials said Tuesday.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, a pile of coal ash 75 feet long and as much as 5 feet deep has been discovered at the bottom of the Dan River near the site of the spill in Eden, North Carolina. In addition, coal ash as thick as 5 inches has accumulated on the riverbed across North Carolina’s state line. Kerr Lake, a major reservoir in North Carolina, has also seen coal ash buildup.

The officials said they were concerned about the long-term environmental impacts of the spill, especially the spill’s effect on fish and other aquatic life. They said coal ash, a waste product created during the coal-burning process and which contains mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxins, can bury aquatic life in the river and clog the gills of mussels and fish. The Dan River is home to two endangered aquatic species: the Roanoke logperch and the James spinymussel. North Carolina officials have already warned residents to avoid prolonged contact with parts of the Dan River and not to eat the fish.

“The deposits vary with the river characteristics, but the short- and long-term physical and chemical impacts from the ash will need to be investigated more thoroughly, especially with regard to mussels and fish associated with the stream bottom and wildlife that feed on benthic invertebrates,” Tom Augspurger, a contaminants specialist at the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The impacts of this particular spill on river life aren’t yet known, but coal ash spills have had devastating effects on rivers in the past. In December 2008, about 525 million gallons of coal ash spilled in Tennessee, flooding up to 300 acres of land and making its way into the Tennessee River. That spill “resulted in a tremendous fish kill,” according to a local paper. Given the severity of past coal ash spills, environmental groups in North Carolina are worried about the effects of this latest coal ash spill, especially the worry of toxins like lead and mercury accumulating in Dan River fish.

“Most studies have shown the environmental impacts from coal ash leaks last for 10 years or more,” Kara Dodson, a field organizer with Appalachian Voices, told Elon University’s The Pendulum. “The science isn’t out on that yet, but it could be decades before we stop seeing effects from this spill.”

In December 2013, a study found that coal ash has been responsible for the deaths of 900,000 of fish each year in Sutton Lake in North Carolina, which has long served as a cooling lake for a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant. The study also found that some species of fish examined showed deformities such as curved spines, misshaped or missing fins, and mouth and jaw defects — defects that the study said are consistent with elevated levels of selenium, a toxic element found in coal ash.