A pipe that ran under a coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina ruptured on February 2, 2014. It sent coal ash gushing into the Dan River. That’s barely a month after a storage tank ruptured, sending coal processing chemicals into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. These two incidents highlight the environmental hazards inherent in burning coal as a fuel.
The Dan River
From its headwaters in Virginia, the Dan River crosses the Virginia/North Carolina border several times. It empties into Kerr Lake, a man-made reservoir on the Roanoke River located in three counties in Virginia and three more in North Carolina.
It is a scenic river, popular for fishing, boating, and other recreational activities. It also supplies drinking water for Danville, Virginia and South Boston, Virginia.
Duke Power built a coal-fired electricity generating plant in Eden. It hasn’t been used for years. Now Duke Energy, the company still has workers on site to take care of it.
The current state of the art treatment of coal ash requires sending it to a lined landfill. Formerly, it was mixed with water to keep it from blowing away and stored in large lagoons.
The one at the Dan River station had two storm water pipes running underneath it. As with all infrastructure, the pipes degraded. The larger of the two collapsed, allowing the slurry of coal ash to enter it and pour into the river.
The coal ash problem
Lagoon spills are rare. It has generally been a safe disposal method. The largest spill from a coal ash lagoon happened in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. Since that was only six years ago, the long-term effects of such a spill are unknown.
Coal is a mostly organic substance, but when burned it leaves an inorganic residue of a variety of heavy metals, some radioactive. Mercury and selenium present the chief environmental concerns.
Mercury poisoning causes nerve damage and birth defects such as mental retardation. Once mercury enters the body, it does not get eliminated. Therefore mercury biomagnifies and bioaccumulates in the food chain.
Insects in the water eat mercury-contaminated microbes. Smaller fish eat these invertebrates, along with the mercury. Larger fish eat the smaller fish. Mammals, including humans, eat the larger fish.
Eating mercury-contaminated food is not the only way to accumulate mercury in the body. At each stage of the food chain, the concentration of mercury increases. Mercury in fish is a significant dietary problem even without coal ash spills.
Selenium causes deformities in fish and prevents them from reproducing. Selenium from government approved discharges at Duke’s Belews Creek Steam Station between 1976 and 1986 eliminated 19 of 20 species of fish in Belews Lake.
Once Duke scientists determined that the fish kills were directly related to selenium in coal ash, the company moved aggressively to upgrade its ash disposal practices. Nevertheless, it still maintains 31 ash ponds at 14 different sites in North Carolina alone. Some still receive waste from working plants.
The diversity of fish long ago returned to Belews Lake. But decades after the last discharges of coal ash into the creek, the fish still have excessive concentrations of selenium.
Modern water treatment plants can remove mercury, selenium, and other heavy metals. The spill does not seem to have tainted treated water for drinking and bathing.
On the other hand, it renders the river unfit for swimming, boating, fishing, and other recreational activities.
The cost of coal ash
Over the past 40 years, more than two dozen catastrophes involving coal ash have done more than $2 billion damage to fish and wildlife. Monetary losses come from
- lost revenue from curtailed fishing, swimming, and boating
- depressed property values of land along the river or lake
- the monetary value of fish that would have been consumed if not contaminated
- loss of tax revenue because of business and property losses
- staff time and equipment spent cleaning up the spill instead of more productive work
Even recreational businesses upstream from Eden, and therefore not affected by the spill, are finding it hard to persuade customers that their portion of the Dan River is safe.
Regulation of coal ash
Our regulatory agencies swing back and forth from trying to regulate everything they can think of to a hands-off attitude and back again.
Some business industries propose a general lifting or easing of regulations in the name of job creation. It is a false economy. It is much cheaper to prevent catastrophes through adequate oversight and judicious regulation than to deal with their long-term effects on the economy and human health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only partially regulates coal ash. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act categorizes coal ash as an “exempt waste” if it is contained in a waste pond.
The EPA regulates discharges of coal ash through the Clean Water Act and levies fines for excessive discharge. It is only now considering whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.
Let’s not forget that state and local agencies have responsibilities for regulating companies and the wastes they produce. Rightly or wrongly, state agencies are regularly accused of being too easily influenced by business interests.
I could write all kinds of things about how citizens need to be active and vigilant in government, but that’s not what this blog is about.
What can citizens do apart from political action?
I suggest for one thing they can be a voice for sustainability wherever they work. Many companies have a growing realization that their employees care about the environmental consequences of its activities.
Right now “environmentalists” are seen as an elite class of activists. They seem to most of the population as someone else.
What we need is a citizenry that advocates for the environment where they live and work. We need workplaces that routinely care about their own environmental impact.
We need to see green living and sustainability as important to “us” and not just “them.” Tweet this
What if employees at the Dan River Steam Station saw their work there at least in part as taking care of the environment? Would they perhaps have been more diligent about the pipes running under the ash pit?
What if employees at the plant in Charleston saw their work at least in part as taking care of the environment? Would they perhaps have been more diligent in inspecting and maintaining the tanks?
Would an environmentally conscious management have been more curious about what was in those tanks and what would happen in event of a problem?
Whatever happens on the political and regulatory front, we have to make sustainability mainstream. And that won’t happen at rallies.
various articles in (Greensboro, North Carolina) News & Record
Dan River Spill / N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources
EPA’s Response to the Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill in Eden, NC
Dan River. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial view of Kingston ash slide. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Work at the Dan River spill site. Some rights reserved by NC Dept. of Energy and Natural Resources.
Earth in hands. Source unknown