The Coal Ash Sludge In The Dan River Is Finally Getting Vacuumed Up

CREDIT: AP Photo / Gerry Broome

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, dips her hand into the coal ash spill in the Dan River.

According to the Associated Press, workers have begun vacuuming up the worst of the sludge from a February spill of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River.

On February 2, a collapsed pipe at Duke Energy’s power plant near Eden, North Carolina spilled about 39,000 tons of coal ash, which spread 70 miles down river. Duke Energy has hired Phillips & Jordan Inc. — the same company tapped in 2008 to clean up a massive Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill — to clean up the pollution. The company began moving equipment into place back at the start of April, and on Monday began cleaning up the biggest of the coal ash deposits — a 350-by-20 yard, one foot deep, 2,500-ton chunk that’s collected up against the Schoolfield Dam near Danville.

Officials have identified at least three other deposits in the river that will need to be removed, including a 40-ton pile-up at Town Creek, two miles downstream from Danville. That clean-up is expected to be completed in late June, around the same time as the Schoolfield Dam deposit, Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks told the AP.

The clean-up process involves vacuuming the coal ash, the sediment, and the water out of the river, then separating the water out and returning it to the river. After that, the coal ash itself will be shipped to a landfill in North Carolina’s Person County for permanent storage.

The initial spill blew up a deal Duke was attempting to reach with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) over a lawsuit brought by environmentalists charging the company with allowing its 33 coal ash ponds in the state to befoul North Carolinians’ groundwater. The lawsuit settlement would’ve fined Duke $99,100, without any accompanying requirement to clean up the pollution. Since the collapse of that arrangement, the lawsuit is ongoing. And the spill sparked a federal investigation into the DENR’s lackadaisical regulation of Duke Energy, along with criticism from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nineteen of Duke Energy’s own major shareholders have also asked the board of directors to launch an independent investigation into the February spill.

On top of all this, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory — who as head of the state’s executive branch is ostensibly in charge of the DENR — worked for Duke Energy for 29 years. Between the company’s PAC and its executives, Duke donated $98,000 to McCrory from 2000 to 2012, which is far more than any other sitting governor has received from a company. The connection, needless to say, has placed McCrory under heightened public scrutiny, and he has since quietly dumped his stock in the company.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), data collected over years shows leaks from the ponds have made it into the water supply, and monitoring of groundwater near some of Duke’s plants revealed levels of pollution that outstrip regulatory limits.

Duke Energy has also been accused of violating eight other environmental regulations in just the previous month. And in the weeks after the spill into the Dan River, it was discovered that the company had deliberately and illegally dumped 61 million gallons of coal ash into the Cape Fear River.

As for the Dan River itself, Danville officials maintain that their city water is safe to drink — the city’s treated water reportedly exceeds safety requirements. Yet the coal ash sludge sitting at the river bottom remains a danger to aquatic life, and residents have been warned to not swim in the river or eat fish from the area.