10 years ago, one of the largest coal ash disasters changed NC environmental history

EDEN, N.C. — When Brian Williams heads to the banks of the Dan River he sees the heart of his community. It’s a home to fish, a source of drinking water and, after years of hard work with the Dan River Basin Association, he said it’s become one of Rockingham County’s biggest assets.

“It’s 214 miles worth of tourism,” he said.

These days, you’ll see picnics along the banks, canoes and kayaks all summer, and businesses springing up with a riverside view. As the muddy water flows by, Williams said he’s grateful not to see much of a trace of the spill that made the river famous 10 years ago.

“It was just a river of ash,” he said. “Heartbreak on the Dan we called it.”

Feb. 2, 2014

It happened on a Sunday.

A pipe running under a coal basin at the retired Dan River Steam Station, a Duke Energy power plant, broke. Thousands of tons of coal ash were sucked out into the river.

“We actually got a call from a postman who used to eat dinner next to the river and he’d say, ‘Hey, the river’s black and gray. What’s going on?’” Williams said.

For decades, the ash had been sitting in an unlined pit, meaning there was nothing between the material and the ground. The ash was known to carry heavy metals, hazardous to human health.

The Dan River Basin Association, along with several other environmental organizations, had been warning Duke Energy for years there were two big risks associated with unlined pits, like the one at the Dan River Steam station. The coal ash was slowly leaching into the soil underneath, threatening nearby groundwater, and these unlined pits, which are almost always near large bodies of water, could breach, spilling tons of ash into that water all at once.

“Our pathways had specifically targeted this coal ash pond as a potential issue and no one had taken us seriously,” said Tiffany Haworth, the executive director of the Dan River Basin Association. “It wasn’t a matter of if this would happen, it was a matter of when.”

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, the nearby city of Danville, Virginia, shut off its water intake from the river. Haworth and Williams found dozens of dead mussels and macroinvertebrates buried in the ash and their teams took daily water and soil samples to assess the level of contamination.

“When we first started testing, there was high percentage of the things that were in coal ash,” Williams said, referring to elements like selenium, lead, mercury, chromium, and arsenic.

“We’ve got cornfields, tobacco fields, we’ve got cow fields, we’ve got all this stuff along the river in agriculture. So you’ve got all this ash in there mixing with the sediment, coming up and getting deposited possibly on farm fields -- there were just so many unknowns.”

Duke Energy worked with the EPA and state regulators to plug up the leaking pipe and make a plan for excavating the ash from the river, but delays due to weather and red tape associated with navigating both North Carolina and Virginia regulations slowed the process.

In the meantime, the ash flowed 70 miles downriver -- only a fraction of the 39,000 tons of ash that spilled could be removed over the multi-month excavation process.

A years-long battle

At the same time, people across the state were paying attention to the issue of coal ash. Duke Energy had 14 sites across North Carolina and the people who lived near those sites were asking if this could happen again.

One particular area of concern was the pit at the retired Riverbend Station. It was directly adjacent to Mountain Island Lake, which is a major drinking water source for Charlotte and Gaston County.

“It was really just kind of unthinkable that this could happen here as well and then when it happened on the Dan River, that really shook that foundation,” said Brandon Jones, the Catawba Riverkeeper. “It proved that this could happen anywhere, and we really needed to move that coal ash.”

In August of 2014, the North Carolina legislature passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which required Duke Energy to fully excavate its four sites with the highest risk: Riverbend, Asheville, Sutton in Wilmington, and the Dan River site.

“The water has been safe over the decades,” Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton said. “It was protected while the basins were here, it’s protected now but with that proximity to drinking water, we wanted to make sure that everything was done on schedule.”

As that excavation took place, however, environmental groups and the neighbors of remaining coal ash sites called for more. In 2016, lawmakers amended the Coal Ash Management Act requiring Duke to excavate three more of its unlined coal ash sites. Then in 2019, the Department of Environmental Quality extended that mandate to all of Duke’s unlined sites.

Coal ash today

Duke Energy completely excavated both the Riverbend and Dan River sites by spring 2019. The Sutton and Asheville excavations were completed in 2020 and 2022, respectively.

Excavations at all the remaining sites are underway, but the entire process will take until 2038.

“Our largest site in North Carolina has about 20 million tons and we can excavate about a million and a half tons per year,” Norton said.

That site is the Allen plant, in Belmont, which will retire at the end of the year. Excavators will spend the next 14 years moving the ash.

In the meantime, Duke Energy is fortifying protections at its current unlined pits and has changed the process for disposing of new ash created at its active coal plants.

“No ash is going into unlined basins anymore,” Norton said. “It’s all going into lined landfills.”

As for the ash that’s been excavated, some is going to recycling plants but Duke Energy has been storing it in new lined landfills. According to Milind Vishnu Khire, a professor with UNC Charlotte who researches landfill design and safe waste disposal, the synthetic lining creates a barrier between the ash and its contaminants and the ground and water to prevent leaching.

Once the excavations are complete and the landfills are full, a second synthetic barrier is placed on top of the ash, then it’s covered in soil, trapping the ash underground.

“Putting liners where the coal ash is stored is a very safe way to go forward,” Khire said. “That will definitely give us a long-term protection to the groundwater and surface water.”

Duke Energy expects to spend $8-9 billion on the cleanup process. The utility company will take on $1.1B of that cost directly, the rest will be factored into rate increases to customers over the next 15 years.

The Dan today

Ten years later, the water no longer runs gray.

According to Williams, every year since the spill he’s found less and less coal ash in his water and soil samples, a sign of the river’s resiliency. He still worries, however, about the long-term impacts of the spill.

“Is this bio-accumulating in these systems and are we going to see it later down the road?” he said.

Nevertheless, Williams said he feels safe paddling and fishing in the river and is happy to see many of his neighbors taking an interest in the water as well. According to Haworth, in the wake of the disaster, dozens of locals signed up as volunteer water quality monitors and have continued that commitment to this day.

“We were able to work with our communities to make it into something that was not positive but it was long-lasting,” she said. “People are caring about the health of our waterways.”

As for ash across the rest of the state, Williams said he’s glad to see North Carolina taking the issue seriously, but he wishes it didn’t take a disaster in his backyard, to finally spur action.

“A lot of times people will not solve a problem until it really affects them,” he said.

(WATCH: Rock Hill fishermen catch record-breaking catfish in Catawba River)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

Comments on this article