EDEN, N.C. — Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station was a hub of activity Tuesday — flatbeds hauling heavy construction equipment and dump trucks full of gravel were arriving, bulldozers and other equipment were in use just about anywhere you looked and teams of people were climbing in and out of pickup trucks everywhere, working to stem the coal ash flow into the Dan River from a water pipe that broke Sunday.
Some of the teams of people were Duke Energy employees, but others were from various state agencies, there to inspect the site, monitor the spill and make recommendations.
Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said the broken water pipe runs under the primary ash basin used to collect ashes from a now-closed coal-fired electric power plant. The ash accumulated during the plant’s active lifetime, which began in 1949 and ended in 2012.
The ashes were carried out of the plant by water, which went to the ash basin. Over time, ash would settle to the bottom of the basin and the water would move on to a second basin, where it was “polished” before being returned to the Dan River, Culbert said.
But when the water pipe broke Sunday, there were no extra cleansing stops; the company estimates that between 24 to 27 million gallons of water from the basin has reached the Dan River, bringing between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of ash with it — enough ash to fill up to 32 Olympic-sized swimming pools, Culbert said.
The Dan River turned grayer and grayer downriver as the ash traveled, and by Tuesday the familiar brown of the river running through Danville had changed to a depressing gray; even some of the vegetation along its banks was covered in gray ash.
Matt Wasson, director of programs for the non-profit environmental organization Appalachian Voices, said the group responded to the spill immediately, taking their own samples from canoes and banks from Eden to Danville.
Wasson calls the spill “a massive disaster … an enormous quantity of ash has gotten into the river.”
On Tuesday evening, Wasson said, there was a noticeable increase in the amount of ash visible in river at Danville, and samples taken near the water intake at the water treatment plant visibly had more ash content and “everything on shore was covered in that ash.”
Wasson said he is not necessarily worried about the drinking water supply because he believes the treatment plant can handle it — but he is concerned about long-term ecological damage.
Culbert said coal is mostly made up of harmless elements like silica and calcium, but it does have traces of harmful elements, like arsenic, selenium and mercury.
Those harmful elements can be a concern in high doses, Culbert said, adding that Duke Energy handles those trace elements carefully so they don’t exceed environmental limits allowed in water being returned to the river.
Wasson said it is exactly those trace elements that concern him.
“Someone could be eating fish months from now that have those built up in their tissue,” Wasson said. “There’s a third of the periodic table in here; we’ll be seeing this for months, if not for years.”
Cale Jaffe, the director of the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said this ash basin has been polluting the groundwater at the Dan River site for years, “exceeding standards for toxic substances including arsenic, boron and sulfate.”
For about a year, the group has been working to force Duke Energy to clean up coal ash sites at 14 locations in North Carolina, including the one in Eden, Erin Malec, of the SELC, said.
Malec said the group’s legal actions against Duke Energy have “spurred the state to take action,” and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has filed a series of enforcement actions against Duke Energy.
Culbert said Duke Energy has been studying the best way to clean up the ash basins on a site-to-site basis, and cleaning out the one in Eden was slated as part of the demolition of the old plant, which is underway.
Right now, though, ash is carefully being moved to expose the broken pipe so a camera can be inserted to locate the break and help engineers assess the best way to fix it, Culbert said.
Asked why it took a full day to notify the public about the spill, Culbert pointed out that local emergency services departments and state regulatory agencies were notified immediately, but the company wanted to better “understand the conditions” before notifying the public.
“We wanted it to be timely, but we wanted it to be right,” Culbert said.
The spill has been slowed — plugs were tried and most of the water in the basin has already been discharged — but until the broken pipe is unearthed, the company cannot estimate when the leak with stop permanently, Culbert said. And even then, it will be a while before the Dan River returns to its natural brown.
“We will see visible gray water for some time,” Culbert said.