Man-Made Disaster: What's Next for Duke Energy's Coal Ash Cleanup

Brionna Kennedy, Exclusive to US Daily Review

On February 2, 2014, residents of North Carolina’s Rockingham County noticed that the Dan River has turned a strange grey color. Little did they know that local company Duke Energy had experienced a massive breach in their containment ponds, leaking tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River. With an estimated 50,000 tons of coal ash spilled along with 27 million gallons of tainted water, the breach is the third largest in the history of the US. With coal ash residue reaching as far as 80 miles away, local residents wonder if the cleanup will even keep them safe from the contaminated water.

The Beginning

The Dan River Steam Station stopped coal energy production in 2012, but tons of coal ash waste remained stored in containment ponds around the facility. Their unlined storage ponds date from the 1950s, and the pipes are not entirely made of reinforced concrete as is standard for such storage ponds. The experts from Pacific Hose & Fittings say it was inevitable that the ponds started leaking into the Dan River. In August 2013, Duke Energy was cited for leaking arsenic-laden coal ash into groundwater. Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center repeatedly attempted to file suit against the company, but was blocked at every turn by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Leak

While the DENR was stalling in the courts, the big breach finally occurred on February 2. One of the storm water pipes broke, spilling the coal waste from the facility’s largest pond into the river. The 27-acre containment pond continued to empty into the river unchecked for six days until Duke Energy finally rigged a pump system to direct the flow back into the ponds. A second pipe then leaked waste for more than two weeks before it was stopped.

The Aftermath

Duke Energy faces unique challenges as many of the chemicals spilled into the river, like selenium and arsenic, are heavy metals. As a result, these metals sink to the riverbed where they are ingested by fish when they pass water through their gills or eat contaminated prey. The dangers to local drinking water and groundwater are also serious as the Dan River provides drinking water to the nearby city of Danville.

The Cleanup

Heavy rains have complicated the cleanup process, a joint effort of Duke Energy and the EPA. After three weeks, most of the coal ash is still in the river. The majority of the ash has become mixed in with river sediment and coats the bottom of the Dan River, endangering not only fish but also mussels and other river life. Reports of turtles crawling out of the river and dying have emerged from the Virginia side of the river, but with high waters and swift currents the cleanup may not be fast enough for local wildlife. Compounding the problem, cleanup crews admitted to reporters that it will be impossible to completely remove the coal ash from the Dan River.

With a massive leakage of toxic chemicals into their water, the people of Rockingham County can only hope that the cleanup will rid their waters of dangerous metals and have a minimal effect on the local wildlife. As accusations fly and investigations are launched, the Duke River disaster will likely have major long-term effects on the energy industry in North Carolina.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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