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Coal ash spill is No. 1 priority for DRBA
Crews work at the site of a pipeline that spilled millions of gallons of water contaminated with coal ash into the Dan River on Feb. 2. (Contributed photo)
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer
The coal ash spill afflicting the Dan River has become the central focus of the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA), according to DRBA program manager Brian Williams.
On Feb. 2, a Duke Energy pipeline containing coal ash sprung a leak beneath a 27-acre pond. More than 82,000 tons of coal ash leaked into the pond, and more than 27 million gallons of ash-contaminated water spilled into the Dan River over the following days, The Associated Press has reported. The leak has since been plugged.
Although Henry County and Martinsville are upstream from the spill and thus not directly affected, Williams said the indirect effects could be significant.
“It’s unfortunate that when people are upstream from this, they don’t think it affects them,” Williams said. “This is a regional effort. We know it’s going to have some effect on tourism” in the wider region.
“When people hear ‘Dan River,’” he added, “they now associate it with the coal ash spill.”
For a nature lover such as Williams, seeing the ash-contaminated stretch of the Dan River from Eden, N.C., to South Boston and Kerr Lake was heartbreaking.
“It was very disturbing,” he said. “It made us sick. It made you want to cry, paddling downriver through a river of coal, knowing what the effects would be. You could instantly see there were going to be long-term effects.”
DRBA, which is headquartered in Eden and has an office in Henry County, is attempting to serve as a central location for information regarding the coal ash spill, and is pulling in partners of the organization, such as Waterkeeper Alliance, to help monitor water quality and spread the word about the spill.
“The more people understand the spill,” Williams said, “the more they can disseminate that information to other people.”
Since the spill occurred, he said, “it’s been all hands on deck. A lot of staff time (has been) devoted to this.”
Although DRBA has maintained its regular outreach programs, such as Trout in the Classroom, during the spill, monitoring the Dan River has taken up a huge amount of the organization’s time and resources, Williams said.
“For long-term monitoring, we’re definitely going to need additional funding,” he said. “Being a small member-base research organization, we don’t have a lot of resources to spend on this.”
DRBA has been involved in understanding the nature of the spill since it happened. It is conducting long-term water quality monitoring and “bio-assessment,” studying the macro-invertebrates that live in the river, such as crayfish, stoneflies, hellgrammites and other varieties of aquatic insects, Williams said.
By counting the population of insects in a water sample, Williams said, DRBA can assess the relative health of a portion of the river. These macroinvertebrates, many of which live at the bottom of the river, represent the bottom of the food chain. If their population is not healthy, the other creatures in the river will not have healthy populations.
“These river bugs are a real indication of the health of a stream,” he said. “They have very sensitive gills. Thick coal ash, silica and heavy metals combine to clog up the gill systems of these organisms.”
Through a process called bio-accumulation, these small organisms will absorb the heavy metals and pass them up the food chain to the larger organisms that prey on them, Williams said.
In certain stretches of the Dan River, the habitats of these organisms are buried in ash, Williams said.
“We have a lot of recreation on the Dan River,” Williams said. “It’s a long river, known for good smallmouth (bass) fishing.”
If the bass and other fish are contaminated by chemicals and heavy metals from the coal ash spill, Williams said, the results could be devastating not only for the fish, but for fishing tourism.
Additionally, Williams said, while the water treatment plants in the affected areas have been able to successfully filter the coal ash and heavy metals from the drinking water, he said the quality of the river water is questionable.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Williams said, has posted advisories along the affected portions of the river advising people to avoid contact with the water because it may cause skin irritation.
“There’s always talk that environmental regulations are killing us” by stifling business, Williams said. However, he said, “while regulations may seem stringent, they’re put in place to mitigate disasters like this. It costs money sometimes to do the right thing. Are you willing to pay up front ... or would you rather pay triple or quadruple the amount when a disaster like this happens?”
Williams hopes this coal ash spill will serve as a wake-up call, and future coal ash dumps will be moved to safer, lined landfills far from water sources.
“Water is the one thing we have to keep clean,” he said. “Regardless of environmental regulations, water is of primary importance” to human life.
By summer, Williams said, people may look at the affected areas of the Dan River and see clear water and no coal ash. That doesn’t mean the problem will have been fixed, however; the chemicals and heavy metals in the coal ash will have seeped underground, he said. The problem will still be there, only hidden.
“It’s going to take a long time before we determine the full effects on the environment,” Williams said. “It’s tragic, but knowing about it and knowing what’s happening is everybody’s responsibility.”
For more information on DRBA and the coal ash spill, visit www.danriver.org.