A broken stormwater pipe from a retired Duke coal plant continues to leak ashy water into the Dan River on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. The pipe broke under an ash pond at the decommissioned Dan River coal plant, about 20 miles from Danville, Virginia. Duke workers are still trying to stem the flow and patch the leak.
Tiffany Haworth found out about the leak on Sunday, but not through the official channels of Duke or state regulators.
“We got a call from a mail carrier here in Rockingham County and he said, ‘I’m calling to let you guys know, the water is black. I’ve never seen it that color before,’” she recalls.
Haworth runs the Dan River Basin Association; it has dual missions—protect the river and promote tourism on it. The river is important to Rockingham County, which earned $60 million from tourism in 2012, according to state numbers. Association member Mark Bishopric runs a local canoe and kayaking business on the Dan and its tributaries.
“They’re the reason that the community is here, has thrived over the years from an industrial standpoint and for the last fifteen to twenty years, for folks to recreate in the rivers,” Bishopric says.
“We’ve got bass, we’ve got trout, we’ve got catfish—typical riverfish,” says Haworth. “We have typical forest wildlife. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, some bear in certain areas of the basin.”
Haworth and Bishopric echo the scientists about what effect the spill will have on that local ecology, and the businesses that depend on it.
“It’s certainly a negative impact versus a positive impact, but we don’t really know what that impact will be,” says Bishopric.
Here’s what we do know:
- State regulators are relying on Duke for estimates of the leak.
- Monday night, the utility reported that somewhere between 50,000 to 80,000 tons of coal ash had leaked into the river, along with up to 27 million gallons of water. That amount is about a sixth of the water the pond can hold and up to 8 percent of the ash in it.
- On Tuesday, a spokesperson said water was leaking at a slower pace of 600 gallons per minute, and yesterday the pace continued to slow.
- The EPA, state regulators, multiple environmental groups, and Duke have all taken water quality samples.
- The main concern right now is the drinking water in Danville, Virginia, which comes from the river. The good news is that tests so far have showed the water, which is filtered, is safe to drink.
- The river has also started to return to its normal color. Late Wednesday night, Duke released its water quality results showing both the river and the filtered water meet federal standards.
- Ash is visibly floating in the river.
Jenny Edwards, the local project manager for the Dan River Basin Association, crouches off of a dock about one mile downstream of the leaking pipe. She points to a dark wavy line on the bottom of the river, and then scoops some of it with a pitcher.
“You can see the natural bed of the river and you can see the demarcation,” Edwards says.
The brown mud that’s ever-present along the river sinks to the bottom of the pitcher, while a fine black slurry, specked with silver, separates to the top.
“That’s coal ash right there. That’s all coal ash,” Edwards says. “What impact is that going to have on fish and wildlife?”
Long-term, high-levels of arsenic, selenium and other metals can kill fish and the micro-organisms they feed off of. But it is too early to tell if that will happen, or even to make a reasonable prediction. Environmental groups are reporting that, even though it falls within normal limits for a water body, they have already seen major changes in the acidity of the river.
And, according to at least one river travel, it stinks.
Caroline Hansley is an NC State student who organizes for Greenpeace at school. She and her boyfriend kayaked to the site of the spill.
“You can immediately smell this pretty nauseous, I don’t know how else to describe it smell, but it definitely hit you,” says Hansley. “And the closer we got to the pipe, you could see white matted areas, and all along the riverbank there’s almost a foot, at least, of a grey band.”
Hansley says she was shooed away from the pipe by Duke workers. Crews are working on both ends, in the ash pond and on the river to stem the flow. At the plant, workers in hard hats and neon jackets stood on a dam, looking down at the pond. Tuesday, they dug out where the pipe is broken. Yesterday, they installed a crane, and other heavy machinery worked to create safe access for workers.\.
“There’s still some water that sits in the ash, and it creates a bit of a soupy environment to work in,” says Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan. “So we need to remove the water from the ash to create a safer environment, so they can build the infrastructure around the pipe and help expedite that repair. That’s the work that’s ongoing now.”
Once that is done, Sheehan says, workers will attempt to build caps to seal either end of the pipe or inject grout into it to stop the leak, or both.
“What they will do is build a safe work area around the break in the pipe, work on a solution to cap or plug that pipe, and—at the end—the pipe will be sealed,” says Sheehan.
There is no timeline for that yet. And Duke says it does not know how the pipe broke in the first place. But Sheehan says priority one is to plug the leak. Then, efforts will turn to the clean up.