Following a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in February, The Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory downstream from the site, recommending people stay out of the water. Now, after surface water and soil testing, state health officials say recreational use of the Dan River is safe.
It has now been almost six months since a Duke Energy storm water pipe ruptured near the Virginia border, sending 39,000 tons of potentially toxic material into the Dan River. Some of the effects have been marginal and others remain unknown.
When that pipe burst back in February it took a few days to seal it. But that wasn’t the conclusion to this story. Since the spill, a federal criminal investigation was launched into the relationship between Duke Energy and State Officials; a debate continues about how to dispose of coal ash – and who should pay for it; currently state lawmakers are considering legislation. And along the river farmers and business owners had concerns as to how the accident could affect their livelihood – crops and tourism.
One humid afternoon this week about a dozen tube-carrying river-goers climbed out of the water near a highway overpass in Rockingham County.
One by one, tubes were placed on the back of a white van. Among the group: Burt and Jennifer, from Thomasville, who floated a cooler filled with snacks and beer down the river. They had heard about the coal ash spill.
"I mean that was one thing we actually checked in to beforehand, because for me it was a concern. But once I realized we were upstream from it – it was like well, we’ll give it a shot," said Burt.
Downstream from the accident an advisory was issued to stay out of the water. It may seem obvious that upstream sections were safe. However, there were concerns that all the attention of the spill would lead to a drop in visitors this summer.
"Other than the fact that we’ve answered a lot of questions there hasn’t been a whole lot of effect on our business here," said Glenn Bozorth, owner of Dan River Adventures. He offers kayaking, tubing and canoeing and also owns a campground. He was concerned about perception of safety, but says it’s a non-issue now and is happy to see summer business consistent with previous years. Bozorth is an environmentalist and concedes he’s not worry free when it comes to the river and coal ash.
"We’re concerned that the information that’s coming out is more of a propaganda nature where Duke Energy and our state government is trying to gloss it over and act like everything is fine and that everything is getting cleaned up and that other coal ash ponds will be taken care of. We’re concerned that that may not be the case," Bozorth said.
Just as Bozorth has had to deal with questions and perceptions, so too has Duke Energy. The company came under widespread criticism after a spill that many environmentalists called preventable. In recent months, Duke has been airing a series of radio ads in the Triad.
The company has coal ash dumps, or ponds, at 14 different locations in North Carolina. Neither the state nor the federal government has mandated any kind of removal. Meanwhile, another area of economic concern downstream from the spill site was farmland. Cattle graze in fields that often flood and farmers regularly irrigate crops with water from the river.
"Well, you know, fortunately, I think that, that we haven’t seen tremendous impacts – that we know of – to agriculture along the river," said Jeff Brooks, a spokesman with Duke.
"Flooding is not the big issue," said Will Strader, with North Carolina State University. "The larger issue is irrigation. There are several fields that are irrigated out of the river. But as far as contamination, we haven’t seen in any of the samples that have been taken so far."
He says a dry summer has helped in the short-term.
A few farmers have irrigated out of the river, for a couple of weeks during a dry stretch in June. Between Eden, where the pipe burst and the Virginia border, there are about 20 farms harvesting tobacco, soybeans, corn and some wheat. N.C. State is doing a two-year soil analysis.
"Are there going to be any long-terms effects and what are they going to be? I’m not sure anyone can answer that right now," Strader added.
It will be years before more is known about how soil, fish populations and plants were affected by the spill. For now it seems that crops and tourism are doing just fine.
Last week crews with Duke Energy finished removing large underwater deposits of coal ash at a dam in Danville, Virginia. Ultimately workers were able to remove more than three thousand tons of sediment. That means more than 90-percent of the ash that poured into the river last February remains.
The concern is that removing very small pockets of sediment will do more harm than good to the ecosystem. And the hope is that in some ways the river will continue to improve on its own.