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Study: No Significant Toxic Buildup In Soil Near Dan River

Duke Energy's coal burning plant and the adjacent coal ash ponds by the Dan River.
Riverkeeper Foundation
File photo of Duke Energy's coal-burning plant and the adjacent coal ash ponds by the Dan River.

A study from N.C. State University says researchers have not found increased levels of toxic elements in soil along the Dan River. It's been almost three years since a Duke Energy coal ash pond released slurry into the river.

The report confirms the Duke Energy’s own findings, according to Spokesman Jeff Brooks, adding the utility is committed to being a national leader in coal ash storage and reuse.

“This news is very encouraging and we'll continue monitoring the river,” Brooks said. “But we hope this is good news for the people of the Dan River Basin.”

For the study, researchers compared two years of soil samples with baseline data, and found no significant buildup of toxic elements like arsenic. Such contamination could have impacted tobacco crops and livestock there. 

The findings should ease a lot of farmers' concerns over the health of their cropland and reassure consumers about the safety of buying products from the area, according to Rockingham Cooperative Extension Director Will Strader.

“I think this is going to ease a lot of concerns that farmers had, and I think it's going to ease a lot of concern that the public's had about buying products from this area,” Strader said.

Farmers had been worried about flooding and irrigation leaving coal ash sediment on their cropland. N.C. State Soil Chemist Dean Hesterberg said that could have led to the buildup of toxic elements like arsenic in livestock, tobacco and eventually humans. So researchers have been analyzing soil samples from immediately after the spill.

“Over the two-year period of the project, we could find no significant changes in the soil concentrations of the trace elements that we were interested in relative to the baseline contents that we measured in the soil samples,” Hesterberg said.

Funding for this study came from a Duke Energy research grant. Hesterberg says the company did not contribute any content.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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